I have an overly large DVD collection, including some rather unusual items. Among them is a sampling of works that have one thing in common: many people of a religious mindset find them highly offensive. The main examples are Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the animated TV series God, The Devil and Bob. All of them not only generated considerable protest, but also efforts (sometimes successful) to get them banned. As religion is a subject I find extremely interesting, these are programs that hold significant appeal for me.
The Last Temptation of Christ raised objections from people who did not like the idea of a fallable, ambivalent Jesus actually walking away from the cross in order to live out a normal life. But what is often missed is the fact that this act, which makes up the last half hour of the film, is indeed a temptation. In the ensuing vision he finds himself rejected by his followers and comes to realize the importance of his sacrifice and actually wants it to happen. People who object should recall that Jesus does indeed waver. Further, if Jesus was, as theology pertains, “fully human,” then to be human is to be weak and subject to temptation. The film is an affirmation of Christ’s essential Humanity.
Life of Brian is often seen as an attack on Jesus, but in fact Jesus only appears briefly, at a distance, and is not in any way ridiculed. What is instead ridiculed is mindless religious zeal, of the sort that allows the followers of the hapless Brian, who, having mistaken him for the Messiah, spend their time arguing about how he should be worshipped, corrupting what should be simple and clear.
God, The Devil and Bob was a series from the 1990’s that was part of the first wave of shows that attempted to capitalize on the runaway success of The Simpsons. Created by an ordained minister, its title sums up the premise: God and the devil fight over the soul of a typical sitcom slob named Bob. The series aired all of two episodes before being yanked. People protested, no doubt, because God, voiced by James Garner, is depicted as a sunglass-wearing, tie-died aging hippie who is somewhat disappointed in his creation, while the Devil, voiced by Alan Cumming, is witty and charming and the most appealing character. But then, doesn’t theology depict a God who is impatient? And aren’t we told the Devil will be charming? The series was a modern-day version of the medieval Mystery Play tradition, and inevitably affirmed faith and Christian values.
What’s particularly notable about the rather predictable response to these programs is not that people objected, but that they objected without actually having seen the things they were objecting to. A clergyman who debated John Cleese about whether or not Life of Brian was blasphemous proudly stated he certainly did not see it. This is just insanity. To object to something, it is essential to understand it. When I first heard about The Hunger Games, and was instantly revolted by the premise, I took it upon myself to read it, doing so in a single evening, so that I would know if my objections were justified (they were).
To raise objection to something sight-unseen merely because it sounds like it insults one’s personal beliefs is counter to everything that should be true of faith. How weak is your faith if it cannot withstand parody, or even outright insult? The fact is, no matter your beliefs, there will be people who do not share them, and may well find them objectionable. Religious freedom means that I may not prevent you from practicing your beliefs, but I am not obligated to follow them myself. That includes my right to do things your faith says are forbidden, whether it be words or actions. Religious freedom does not mean you have the right to impose your values on everyone else.
And yet, despite my contempt for the people who consider my low opinion for religious practice an “attack” on Christianity, I still must hold them in comparatively high regard. At the release of these “offensive” works, they picketed theaters, boycotted the studio, and all the other things people do when outraged.
But nobody was killed.
Nobody poured into the streets, lighting fires, and killing innocent bystanders. Nobody screamed “Death to Monty Python!” They objected, and that was it. And that, I confess, is the difference between Westernized religious practice, and the apparent mindset in much of the Muslim world (though certainly not all). To commit murder in the name of God or Allah is beyond abhorrent. Really, is Allah so weak that he needs anyone to defend him? I suspect not. And it’s no coincidence that such actions are one of the things that was satirized in Life of Brian.
To be fair, much of the animus that we see when riots break out because someone in the US makes a terrible movie that portrays Muslims poorly is due more to a sense of ongoing Western interventionism than actual religious fervor. Certainly the anger of the rioters is exploited and increased by people with a political agenda. And we must take into account that the freedom of expression we take for granted is largely unknown in the places where the rioting occurs, and in any case is not seen as favorably as it is here. The rioters protest the US because in their own experience it is impossible for someone to independently produce an offensive film; where they are, government and religious authorities control all such things. And the people there generally prefer it that way. What we call “freedom” they might well call licentiousness and anarchy. It’s a different world.
Not that that in any way justifies violence. The makers of the terrible excuse for a film that generated the recent uprising have my contempt, but I do not dispute their right to be terrible. They should not be enjoined from being offensive because it might lead to violence. That’s nothing more than blaming the victim, like telling a rape victim it’s her own fault because she shouldn’t have been out there dressed like that. Yes, there’s such a thing as personal responsibility, but it goes both ways, and if my actions lead someone else into violence, I may have been irresponsible, but it was the other who chose to engage in violence, and my hands are clean.