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Ohio's Jesus statue is latest religious statue to be struck by lightning

By Monica Hesse and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; C01

It appears God has sacrificed his only son. Again.

A bolt struck a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ on Monday outside a church in Monroe, Ohio, and the statue erupted in flames. All that remains is a charred steel skeleton, its spindly arms stretched toward heaven, a gesture that once earned it the nickname "Touchdown Jesus."

Darlene Bishop, co-pastor of Solid Rock Church, says she's simply relieved that the lightning hit Jesus and not the home for at-risk women next door.

"I told them, 'It looks like Jesus took a hit for you last night,' " she says.

Act of God? Act of nature?

In 2008, lightning singed the fingers and eyebrows of Christ the Redeemer, the 130-foot Jesus statue that stands over Rio de Janeiro. In 2007, a bolt blasted the 33-foot Jesus statue at Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colo. One of Jesus's arms fell off.

The saints and angels are not safe either. The Notre Dame de Chicago's Virgin Mary burst into flames from her perch atop the church's dome in 1978; the Engineering News Record covered the construction of a new, lightning-resistant statue with the headline: "Burned once, dome reMaryed."

A bolt that struck St. Joan of Arc's statue in New Orleans sliced her brandished staff in half. Statues of the Angel Moroni, which frequently top Mormon churches, have been hit by lightning with such frequency -- Moroni's horn is particularly susceptible -- that the Salt Lake Tribune once fretted over their safety in a front-page story.

(Side note: Actor James Caviezel was struck by lightning in 2003 while filming Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." He was playing Jesus.)

Believer or not, we can always count on lightning to energize the what-does-it-mean lobes of our brain.

Ancient Romans equated statues being struck by lightning with bad omens, such as chickens beginning to talk and blood raining from the sky. Presumably, the latter two were less-frequent events.

To find some modern-day meaning in Touchdown Jesus, we turned to Pat Robertson, host of "The 700 Club," who has divined meaning from Hurricane Katrina (abortionists?) and the Haitian earthquake (historic pact with the Devil?). Alas, he declined through a publicist to interpret the significance of the lightning strike.

So, we turned to science. Religious structures, especially church steeples, are regularly zapped because they are often the highest point in a given area, according to John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service. But the same goes for towering secular symbols.

"Oh, she's hit by lightning on a continual basis," says Statue of Liberty spokesman Darren Boch.

When asked whether such lightning strikes might represent a malevolent act of God toward America, Boch says, "I can clearly state that no one here deems it an act of God."

Which brings us to the main reason for writing this story: Lightning Safety Week starts Sunday.

Summer is a bolt-heavy season for much of the South and the East Coast, so the National Weather Service recommends seeking shelter when there's thunder and waiting 30 minutes after the last flash to emerge.

But some people don't need to worry too much: Only five people have been killed by lightning inside the District of Columbia since 1959, despite a flash-per-square-mile rate (11.7) that exceeds 35 states, including Virginia (66 deaths) and Maryland (124).

As for the incineration of Touchdown Jesus, Pastor Bishop isn't reading into it.

"Honey," she says, "it's just some fiberglass."

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