Byline: Matt Hartley
Source: Times Colonist
Call it a case of premeditated religious pareidolia. Pareidolia? The erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random.
For years, people have claimed to see the image of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary on cinnamon buns, in plates of nachos and on barn doors. Now, a former Cleveland-area DJ has created something that will ensure believers can wake up to Jesus in their pancakes every morning.
Say hello to Doc Thompson, creator of the Jesus Pan, a skillet with a raised imprint of Jesus Christ that cooks the image of the Christian saviour right onto your pancakes.
Religious paraphernalia has become a multimillion-dollar industry for companies catering to Christian consumers eager to display their faith. Many of today's Christians are looking for something more than leather-bound Bibles or a chrome fish for the back of their car.
Christian youths sport hip T-shirts with in-your-face sayings like "Life is short, pray hard" and "Yes I'm a princess, my father is the king of kings." One company has created a line of boots and sandals with treads that read "Jesus Loves You," leaving footprints that double as religious messages.
The genesis for the Jesus Pan came to Thompson after he heard about a number of cases in which people sold food singed with the supposed images of religious figures for thousands of dollars on EBay.
"I have strong beliefs, but I also think it's pretty silly that people see Jesus all over the place," Thompson said. "If he really wanted to make himself known, there might be better avenues than a perogy or a waffle."
In 2004, a Florida woman sold a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly depicted the visage of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on EBay. Later that year, a Kingston, Ont., man had similar success auctioning off a fish stick with what appeared to feature the blackened image of Jesus Christ.
The Jesus Pan has a mix of supporters, from college students to church picnic organizers, and also its share of detractors.
"There are people who are serious about religion and think it would be nice to have Jesus on pancakes at church functions and church pancake breakfasts and whatnot," he said. "Then there are the people who just think it's a gag, a fun novelty gift."
Neither category accurately describes the pan's creator.
"I'm kind of down the middle of it," he said. "I'm not a regular churchgoer, but regardless of whatever else, it's fun. And I think that God would have a good sense of humour anyway."
For the most part, the response to the Jesus Pan has been overwhelmingly positive. It was even featured on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which boosted Thompson's sales significantly. Still, he has received a significant number of e-mails from people who say the pans, and the pancakes they produce, are in bad taste.
Mike Easton manages the Christian Book and Music Centre on Blanshard Street, a store that sells religious books, music and other faith-themed products such as wall hangings, crucifixes and David and Goliath playsets. They do not sell the Jesus Pan.
He said there are about 5,000 Christian book stores in North America, including the three his family owns on Vancouver Island, and most of them probably wouldn't carry the Jesus Pan. Some of his customers might find it in bad taste.
"When you take things over the edge, you could possibly be making a mockery of the faith," he said. "As a Christian, you don't want to discourage someone in their faith. We try to be careful with what we sell so that we're not selling things that people will look at and think, 'That's ridiculous.' "
Easton said the products carried in most Christian bookstores generally fall into two categories. The first are personal tokens which help people be reminded of their faith, like crucifixes, necklaces or "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets. Others, like the T-shirts, are designed to provoke a response from others.
"They're meant to be conversation pieces and they're something that gets people talking about their faith," he said.
But at what point do products designed to be a celebration of one's faith become something less idealistic -- even offensive?
"It's not black and white," Easton said. "We run across thousands of products every year that we're given to market, and some of that will be because things are just not in good taste. I think there's a line between what's tasteful and what's provoking a negative response. You want things to provoke a curiosity in people, something that is going to be a conversation starter."
But what is deemed excessive, or a mockery, by one person may not necessarily be regarded the same way by others, he said.
"That line is one that does not seem to be universally agreed upon," said John Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at the University of British Columbia's Regent College.
"It is an issue of sacrilege. When does something become silly instead of holy, or a commodity which has lost its holy status?"
Stackhouse said the Jesus Pan is just another example of religious kitsch, something that has been studied at length by religious scholars for centuries.
"At one level, it's a joke against this sacred grilled cheese. But at the same time, other people do take that more seriously, so this [runs] a risk offending people who do take that kind of phenomenon seriously."
Stackhouse said he can see why some Christians could find the Jesus Pan and other religious kitsch sacrilegious.
"I would find it offensive," he said. "But at the same time, if somebody is willing to fork over their hard-earned money to buy something, then that's their business. The question is, is somebody cynically exploiting the piety of the faithful?"
Before deciding to launch the Jesus Pan, Thompson said he had a long talk with his father, a devout Christian, about the implications.
"I ran it by him. He was kind of my barometer for it," Thompson said. "He said to me that if people can get up every morning and see Jesus on their food, and it helps them to think about Jesus, then it's probably a pretty good thing."
Thompson has received more than 2,000 orders for the Jesus Pan, as well as requests to expand the line to include other religious icons such as the Virgin Mary, Star of David and even the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
"I think I might avoid doing a pan with the image of Muhammad though," he said. "People tend to take that one a bit more seriously."
-For more information or to order Jesus Pans (two for $29.99 US), see the website www.jesuspan.com