Christian Art and Culture

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Mockery & Impiety: Artistic Tools, or Unfair Offenses?

Mockery & Impiety: Artistic Tools, or Unfair Offenses?

My misspent youth had a laugh track provided by the Monty Python crew. There was a time when saying “Neet” in a crowded room was a great way to find a fellow nerd and future friend. Like all good comics, and any prophet, the Pythons mocked the powerful and punctured pretensions.

Anybody thinking the government is here to help has never met the Ministry of Silly Walks. The well placed sneer can deflate a tyrant better than a jeremiad.

Irreverence can be good, but isn’t always. Pity the spouse of a person who uses a deflating snigger at his own wedding. Devils cannot bear to be mocked, but lovers cannot stand it either. I might poke gentle fun at my beloved in private, but it is hard to hear someone else do it.

That makes it hard to admit that The Life of Brian made me laugh. This late seventies film by the Pythons sends up the Gospel story by imaging a parallel non-Christ named Brian. From blessed cheese makers to inept Romans, the script is witty, though some of the gags are dated.

It is pretty impious by historic, though not by modern standards. It is funny, but that doesn’t justify just any joke.

Or does it?

Few things are bigger social stinkers than the man or woman who is too serious or cannot take a joke. Protesting any work that one finds offensive isn’t going to go well. The response will be: “it is just a book/game/movie/picture.” Of course, the shrug denigrates the power of art.

No Christian who loves art can be satisfied by pretending bad art doesn’t matter.

Triumph of the Will, the Nazi propaganda film, is wicked, even if it is well made. I would be disturbed by even an ironic use of the image of Stalin... a man who murdered millions of my fellow believers. When a work of art denigrates the powerless or inflates the ego of a tyrant, then some protest seems worth making.

Which brings me to The Life of Brian, and a new play, The Book of Mormon.

I love Jesus and He has changed my life. I owe him my allegiance as king. When I see something that borders on mockery of my Savior or later pieces of art that do attack His character, it might be funny, artistically splendid, but it also turns my stomach.

The Life of Brian turned my stomach in college, but because it was also funny, I let it go. I know God can take it, His throne does not totter when a group of middle-aged men have a laugh at religion, but it may not be good for me. My friend may be mentally tough enough to take mockery, but as his friend that does not mean I should like or sit through it.

Shouldn’t I at least express my discomfort? Works of art are complex, but while recognizing excellence in them, shouldn’t I point out the bad? I find the racist Birth of a Nation unwatchable and am horrified when I hear it was President Woodrow Wilson’s favorite.

This discomfort and disgust is socially acceptable to express. Why isn’t religious discomfort?

I am sorry I gave The Life of Brian too much of a pass and fear it was because comedy justifies too much. Real impiety is not good for me, because it fails to recognize reality. Of course, Brian is quaint compared to art and literature made and applauded since. But blasphemy is wrong, it is a sin.

I refuse to give blasphemy a personal pass.

Government shouldn’t censor, my neighbor has a right to consume it, and I can learn from what is good in any work of art, but that doesn’t mean I cannot express offense when blasphemy is part of it.

There are artistic times to use it, but rarely.

What of mocking Mormons? Can one safely blaspheme a faith one thinks is often false? I am not a Mormon and believe Mormonism is, on the whole, false, but the problems with Mormonism are widely broadcast. In fact, Mormons are disliked by the broader culture and there are many false ideas about their community and present beliefs. They also share many ideas with traditional, orthodox Christians.

Mocking the mocked seems cowardly and mean.

Safe to say mocking Mormons will cost a theater very little outside of very select regions.

When Broadway revels in impiety and offending Mormons, this disturbs me. It does not disturb me in exactly the same way as if a play mocked my own beliefs, but it breaks the Golden Rule. If I give blasphemy against Mormonism an easy personal pass, then I am not doing to another faithful man what I would have him to do to me.

Surely in a multi-religious society, this failure of the Golden Rule is dangerous.

It is also dishonoring to my Mormon friends if I ignore their pain. Why do I want to laugh at their cherished beliefs, even ones I think wrong? It is mockery that will not help them reconsider and will only harden them against my own views. God help me, but from Conan Doyle to this new play, they have been unfairly lampooned at every corner.

I would not use any stick to beat a dog and only a wicked man would use any rhetorical stick to beat on a neighbor with whom he had disagreements.

I am told this play, The Book of Mormon, is “affectionate” while blasphemous and brilliantly witty. The very name, however, rankles. My assumption will be that this is true, but in a society overrun with impiety, mockery, and sarcasm I find no need to fill my soul with more.

Even the Pythons seem less funny now, because when Disney films roll-the-eyes at the audience, we don’t need much more of their humor.

And so I protest this play, I hope it fails, though I suspect it will not. I protest the easy cursing and misuse of God’s name in spaces I cannot avoid. Freedom of speech, which I will grant any other man, also gives me the right to be offended.

Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: April 11, 2011