I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, since it was clearly right in front of me every morning. A couple of months ago, I detected an image of a face in the patterns of my fake marble bathroom countertop. Like all other face-like images that appear in everyday objects, it’s fairly nebulous, but to me, it looks like a man with a prominent nose and large, droopy jowls, cradling an infant. Here it is:
These features seem fairly obvious to me, but if you’re having trouble making them out, I’ve numbered everything. Like a savvy evangelist, I am now interpreting this image for you, and may even imbue it with a gravitas that it likely doesn’t deserve. :o)
This is what I see: 1) and 2) Deep-set eyes. 3) Nose 4) Large, fleshy jowl 5) Infant’s head. 6) Infant’s mouth 7) Infant’s eyes. The white horizontal line between the 7 and 3 is just the camera flash reflection.
My first thought was: maybe this is an image of Jesus. Every couple of years (or more frequently if you read the tabloids), there’s a story about someone discovering an image of Jesus in their grilled cheese sandwich, household appliance, chocolate bar or embedded in a mouldy stain on their bathroom wall.
It’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon, and even add my own twist: perhaps Jesus is the infant, and the old man holding Him is Joseph! Why should Mary always be the person holding Jesus? While my bathroom countertop image does look somewhat like a wise, old man who appears to have a mustache and beard, and who might even be wearing a robe, I don’t believe for a second that this is an image of Jesus.
Some of you may be thinking: Bob, what are you saying? That’s not how it’s supposed to work. This is the proper sequence of events:
- You discover what looks like a face in a common household object.
- Contact as many media outlets as possible.
- Give numerous interviews, stressing that you and the Lord are really tight, which is why Jesus appeared on your [household object].
- Tour the country and do the low-brow talk show and morning show circuit.
- Explain that you hope this image will inspire others to become better people.
- Tell the TV audiences how profoundly this discovery has impacted you, and that you will cherish this object as a symbol of the strong and inseparable bond you have with Jesus.
- Finally, put the item up for auction on eBay before the public interest dies down, and try to collect as much money as possible.
The Golden Palace Casino paid $28,000 for some lady’s grilled cheese sandwich – and it already had a bite taken out of it. Surely I could get more than that for a section of my unmasticated bathroom countertop.
Why Do We See Faces?
This got me thinking – why do we see faces in everyday objects anyway? What happened to our natural skepticism and critical thinking skills? Part of the answer lies in a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, which is the ability to see patterns from randomness or nebulous shapes. An example of pareidolia is this cloud formation:
I remember that the topic of facial detection came up during one of my university psychology classes. According to our professor, babies are hard-wired to recognize faces, because a mother’s face represents comfort, nourishment and protection. During the first three months, an infant’s vision is still pretty fuzzy, so they have to be able to recognize even a vague representation of facial features. That’s why we are able to see faces in almost anything, even if the shape is askew, distorted or poorly-defined.
The proverbial Man In The Moon is a good example of a face arising from amorphous features. I’ve never been able to see the face myself – it had to be pointed out to me. Even so, I still don’t see much of a resemblance.
Why Is The Face Always Jesus?
Whenever the media reports on one of these stories, the face is invariably Jesus. Why don’t people run to the media clutching their grilled cheese sandwich and excitedly claim to see Pauly Shore, Judge Wapner, Les Nessman or Reuben Kincaid? An image of Reuben Kincaid on a reuben sandwich – now surely that’s something that will sell newspapers!
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the author of The Chronicles Of Narnia, proposed that we see religious imagery because we live in a world that is immersed in such things. Certainly, during Lewis’s lifetime, religion was much more prominent in North American society, so his observation makes sense. My sociology professor once remarked “believing is seeing” – what we see is based, in part, on our belief system.
If believing is seeing, then why doesn’t anyone think that the nebulous Man In The Moon is actually the face of Jesus? Wikipedia lists several stories about the origins of the Man In The Moon. These include tales from Norse, Chinese and Haida mythology, but there is nothing that mentions Jesus. The Jesus connection seems obvious (at least to me) – if God is omnipresent and is watching over us from the heavens, then an ideal manifestation would be a face-like image on the moon, as both a tangible indicator of His omnipresence, and a subtle (and persistent) reminder to behave ourselves. The moon was far beyond our reach (at least until 1969), so there would no way for anyone to get a closer look and either verify or debunk this claim.
A further irony is the Cone Nebula. After the Hubble Space Telescope photographed it (above), some people believed that this was also an image of Jesus, and even quoted Matthew 24:30 to back up their assertion “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory“. Sure, this sounds very foreboding – until you do a little research and discover one nit-picky detail: the Cone Nebula is 2,700 light years away. The light from the Cone Nebula took 2,700 years to get here, which means that the light in this image started its journey toward Earth 700 years before Jesus was even born.
I can understand that people might see Jesus in everyday objects during C.S. Lewis’s lifetime, but in today’s increasingly secular society, why is it still happening, and with (what seems to be) increasing frequency? Personally, I think the answer lies – ironically enough – in one of the Seven Deadly Sins: hubris. We want to believe that we are special, or at least that we’re better than our friends and neighbours. One way to accomplish this is by forging a connection between ourselves and the creator of the universe. We want to feel that we alone have been selected by God, from this planet’s seven billion inhabitants. Other people attend Mass at God’s house every Sunday, but now God (or His son) comes to you. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of a doctor making a house call, or of playing golf with your company’s president, and having him pick you up at home.
This ego trip doesn’t work as well with images of other people. Seeing a likeness of Richard Simmons in your grilled cheese sandwich, sends an entirely different, and decidedly less flattering message: put that sandwich down, and get on the treadmill! Come on, you can do it!
Penn & Teller, in a program called Signs From Heaven, offer another, similar explanation. Some people are tired of going to church and hearing about miracles happening to others, so this is a way to put themselves in the spotlight by experiencing their own miracle. It’s their turn to be the centre of attention; others now gravitate toward them. Their lives are changed instantly from monotonous to glamourous.
The “monotonous lives” observation is important. How many of these “image of Jesus” claims are made by celebrities, business tycoons, millionaires or anyone else who already leads an exciting or glamourous life? Even the Pope (to my knowledge) doesn’t run around the Vatican, waving a grilled cheese sandwich, and claiming to have experienced a miracle. If you don’t have the talent or good fortune to make a name for yourself, then you can always bask in the reflected glory of others – and who can surpass the glory of Jesus Christ Himself? It’s a brilliant strategy.
Identifying The Bathroom Counter Image
I’m not the first person to see a face in a bathroom counter – according to this story, a woman saw something in her sink that resembled a face, was convinced that it was Jesus, and was so moved and inspired by it that she posted it on eBay with a selling price of $50,000.
I, however, have no desire to stand in the spotlight, nor do I harbour any feelings of hubris, avarice or frothing opportunism. I’m not going to go to the media and claim that this is Jesus because I have no desire to be stuck on some TV talk show, wedged between an aging Elvis impersonator and some hayseed called Gomer who insists that he was abducted and then probed by aliens. More importantly, I’d rather be known for my entertaining blog posts, instead of “that nutbar who thinks Jesus is watching him put on deodorant every morning”. I realize that the “face” on my bathroom counter is nothing more than my pareidolia trying to attribute some meaning to the nebulous patterns.
However, I also can’t resist speculating, and after staring at this image during the past few weeks, I’ve compiled a list of potential candidates: John Lennon; a late-1970s Dan Hill; Frank Zappa, cradling his newborn daughter, Moon Unit; Ted Neely (in character); a spry Dumbledore; Aragorn; a youthful Gandalf; or a young Saruman.
In the end, and after much contemplation, I’ve finally decided that my bathroom counter image is probably this cat, from the 1960s band The Strawbs. Now if only I can figure out what this means…