The On-Going Reliance on Razzle-Dazzle

Too many crutches for faith

I think we all—including devout Christians, by the way—sympathize with doubting Thomas depicted in John 20. The other disciples had told Thomas that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to them, but he was skeptical. He wanted evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) So indeed, Jesus showed up again with Thomas present: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you, ’” (20:26) and he obliged Thomas’ request for evidence: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (20:27-28)


Then we come to the author’s primary reason for including this story, found only in John’s gospel: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”  (20:29)


This has been championed as a “best practice” by clergy of all brands ever since: belief without evidence is the ideal, the most blessed approach to embracing religious doctrines. Despite the absence of evidence, “Just go along with what we’re telling you. You can trust us, we’re in touch with God.”


Please note, however, that the author of John’s gospel was not consistent: he knew that people could be wowed with razzle-dazzle. In his second chapter we find his story of Jesus changing water into wine—another of his episodes that the other gospels fail to include—and it’s a stunt to provoke belief:  “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11) That was a way to “reveal his glory”? I suppose he was in good company: the Greek and Roman gods of wine, Dionysus and Bacchus, pulled off the same miracle. John assured his readers that Jesus’ disciples believed in him because of the wine trick. Many magnitudes greater was the stunt John recounts in his chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus. Why did he bring Lazarus back to life? 


Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42


“…so that they may believe…” 


On the one hand, just believe without having seen; on the other hand, there’s amazing razzle-dazzle to make it easier. Let’s look at a few examples. 


Razzle-Dazzle: The Building Boom


Lacking any command from Jesus, “Build as many churches as you can,” that’s what the Christian bureaucracy has done. How is nonbelief possible when scenes from the Bible are presented in magnificent stained glass and frescoes? The Vatican, of course, has outdone everyone else. St. Peter’s Basilica is amazing, with the Bernini Columns and Michelangelo’s Pietà just inside the entrance. Believe it or not, all this is rivaled by the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, also in Rome (here’s a virtual tour). I spent hours there marveling at the art.


All this is done—so they say—for the glory of God. But those of us who appreciate the art (but not the theology) wonder why an almighty, self-sufficient God needs to be ”glorified” by humans. That assumes that God has an ego in need of stroking. This looks like a vestige of the ancient modeling of gods on tribal chieftains who demanded praise and subservience. But “for the glory of God” has worked pretty well to stimulate the building boom, which Wikipedia has described:  


As of December 2018, the Catholic Church had 3,391 cathedral-level churches; Cathedral (3,037), Co-cathedral (312), and Pro-cathedral (42) status around the world, predominantly in countries with a significant Roman Catholic population: Italy (368), Brazil (287), United States (215), India (183), France (110), Mexico (100), Spain (88), Philippines (88), Columbia (86), Canada (79), and Argentina (72).”


We can suspect that clerical careers—“I need to move up to a bigger church”—has also played a role. But the razzle-dazzle factor is most important: all the splendor and decoration help boost confidence that the theology is real. When you walk into a church you see contrived evidence for God all around you. And there are other excesses: How about the Christ statue in Buenos Aires: 98 feet high, with his arms stretched 92 feet wide.  


Razzle-Dazzle: Putting on a Show


Even today when I hear Martin Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, played by a thundering pipe organ, I get goose bumps. No matter how my brain might be processing the concept, music circumvents that; it is designed evoke our deepest emotions. Hence the church has worked hard to master ritual and drama. I remember as a teen hearing my mother scoff at TV images of the pope and cardinals in full ceremonial dress: “What has that got to do with Christianity?” For her low-church Methodism, having the choir in black robes walk down the aisle at the start of worship was as fancy as it got—and the preacher in his somber back robe. Her piety didn’t thrive on drama and entertainment. 


But Irving Berlin got it right: “There’s no business like show business…the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props…” The Vatican got into this business long before Berlin wrote those words, and mastered razzle-dazzle in worship. How much does the Vatican spend on costumes? The impact is quite fantastic. And it’s awesome to see the pope hold the chalice aloft as a bell rings to indicate that the Miracle of the Mass has taken place. With such spectacular theatre supporting doctrine, it’s hard for the laity to imagine that the theology can’t possibly be true—any more than hundreds of other god-ideas celebrated in so many other religions are doubted. But they all fail the reliable, verifiable, objective evidence test


Razzle-Dazzle: The Holy Relics


Many years ago, in a darkened interior of a Cathedral in Spain, I saw women holding on to the frames of pictures of saints, deeply in prayer. It would seem that the connection with God was more certain, more intimate, if they could touch something. That would appear to be the appeal of relics in general, and my hunch is that relics help ward off—not evil spirits—but nonbelief! I am reminded of the fellow Jesus met in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Even the most devout believers know how that feels. God is always unseen—except as rendered in art; and unheard—except in ephemeral visions; and unfelt—except in emotions that can be notoriously fickle. 


But somehow God takes on reality if there is something for the faithful to look at, up close and personal, even if touching the relic is not allowed. The Catholic Church has been in the relic-manufacture business for centuries, even into the modern era. This headline caught my attention in 2014: Pope Paul II’s Blood Goes on Tour.

“It’s not your average attraction: a vial containing the blood of the late Pope John Paul II is going on tour across America’s east coast. It has a glass vial containing the Pope’s blood at its centre and is surrounded by a cloud-like shape with 12 red stones, which represent Jesus’s 12 apostles. Catholicism views relics as holy objects. They come in three different classes: a first-class relic is something from the body of a saint, such as the vial of John Paul II’s blood, a second-class relic is something used by a saint and a third-class relic is something touched by a first-class relic.” 

Surely it is malignant piety that encourages people to show up to adore and venerate a vial of blood.


The priests who come up with such gimmicks have just as surely succumbed to a high level of crass cynicism: a vial of blood can be passed off as a “holy object.” And spiritual benefits can be gained by gazing at it. It is part of the larger scheme that promotes the concept of “holy man,” whose blood—after his death—remains holy. 


This works in a religion that endorses drinking the real blood of its savior, and that has venerated blood for centuries. Joe Nickell, in his book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible, reports on his visit to the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges. “I was able to hold in my hands the reliquary supposedly containing the very blood of Christ. It was been called ‘Europe’s holiest relic.’” (p. 101)


The reliquary “…is now brought out daily for veneration by the faithful…it in fact consists of ‘clotted blood’ contained in a vial set in a glass-fronted cylinder, each end of which is covered with gold coronets decorated with angels. The vial (made of rock crystal rather than glass) has been determined to be an eleventh or twelfth-century Byzantine perfume bottle.” (p. 102)


“…the Holy Blood of Bruges lacks a credible provenance, since it has no record for a dozen centuries after the death of Jesus and is contained in a medieval bottle. It appeared with a profusion of dubious other blood relics, including several with which it had in common the property of liquefying and resolidifying, suggestive of a magic trick. Both that behavior and its current appearance are incompatible with genuine old blood and instead indicative of pious fraud.” (p. 103)


Nickell also discusses relics of the True Cross: 


“There is no credible evidence that Helena, or anyone, found Jesus’ cross (with or without the accompanying crosses of the two thieves) in the fourth century—or at any other time for that matter. The provenance is laughable. Even more so is the absurd tale of its miraculousness: its infinite ability to restore itself no matter how many pieces were taken from it.” (p. 97)


The power of bogus relics to connect the pious with God—to ward off nonbelief—is a phantom of the imagination. Even so, in 2014 a vial of holy pope blood went on tour. 


Razzle-Dazzle: The Miracles


The theologians and priests of all religions have forever promoted miracles as proof that their gods are active in the world. The authors of the New Testament took the same approach, including miracle tales in the gospels especially: a virgin birth, healing blindness using mud and spit, casting out demons with magic spells, multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed thousands, turning water into wine, raising the dead—and on and on. Thus it’s no surprise that Christian theologians and priests are still pretty sure—and want the faithful to accept—that God still does miracles: the razzle-dazzle goes on. 


We know, of course, that the clergy do not encourage curiosity—and certainly not due diligence—when the laity look at either biblical miracle stories or reports of modern-day divine interventions. Jesus feeding the 5,000 is taken at face value, without asking: Which is more likely, that such a thing really happened, or that a scrap of fantasy made its way into the gospels? Richard Carrier has pointed out that the gospel writers 


“…just record every wild story they wanted, exhibiting no doubt at all that anything told them was true, no matter how incredible. Their accounts are indeed filled with suspicious and unbelievable stories, with no indication they even bothered to fact-check any of it.”  (Richard Carrier, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ, p. 82 Kindle)


When the claim is made nowadays that someone’s cancer was cured by heavy-duty prayer, skepticism rarely interferes with piety: Was there a medical—rather than miracle—explanation for the healing?  


There are probably hundreds of devotional books about God’s wonderful miracles, but it’s much better to tackle some serious homework on the issue, namely John Loftus’ anthology, The Case Against Miracles. I recommend especially Matt McCormick’s essay, “God Would Not Perform Miracles.” How could that be! Here are two excerpts that drive home the point:


“Every case where someone claims that their prayers led to their rapid recovery from terminal cancer, or that their piety helped bring back a loved one safe from the fighting in a war zone shines a light on all the other cases of suffering that went unabated despite heartfelt prayer, decent lives, and fervent piety.” (p. 72)


“…millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.” (p. 67)


The colossal Christian bureaucracy will continue to push the razzle-dazzle, but thoughtful people see through it. No amount of it can bring any god to life. 


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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