Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Attack on Charlie Hebdo: We Need More Blasphemy, Not Less

There are no words to adequately express the sadness and outrage over the terrible killings of journalists and others in the attack on Charlie Hebdo today. But attacks on those who freely express criticism of religion are not limited to what happened in Paris. Religious people--in this case, Christians--attacked artistic freedom in Winnipeg this summer. I wrote about it in the Winnipeg Free Press shortly after the incident.

In 1972, the musical Godspell came to Toronto. Some Christians welcomed it, but many did not. On opening night, hundreds of people came out to protest.

Far from being angered by the protests, John Michael Tebelek, who wrote the book on which the musical was based, was delighted. He came outside the theatre and offered free tickets to the protesters.

As one of the protesters recalled: "The guy who wrote Godspell thought he'd died and gone to heaven" because of the great publicity the protest gave the play. "The next day, it was all over the newspapers. It couldn't have got them better advertising."

That story came back to me last week when I read about how some Winnipeggers were protesting Theresa Thompson's fringe play Lies of a Promiscuous Woman.

My guess is that the play, which suggests that Mary may have lied about the birth of Jesus, would have achieved only modest notoriety without the complaint.

Instead, the show became big news in Winnipeg and nationally after some protesters wrote the words "slut" and "blasphemer" on the show's posters and on Thompson's car.

In other words, the protest backfired spectacularly. Worse, it also made Thompson feel unsafe -- a particularly un-Christian thing to do.

Looking back, a few things arise for me from this incident.

First off, some media could use a bit of basic religious education. Some reports about the play got it wrong when they described the birth of Jesus as the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic doctrine that refers to how Mary herself was conceived free of sin, not about the birth of Jesus.

Then there's the question of whether the play is blasphemous. Thompson seems to think so. She told one interviewer that the play is "by definition blasphemy, a sacrilege."

According to the dictionary, the definition of blasphemy is "great disrespect to God or to something holy." By that definition, she may be right.

On the other hand, questions about the virgin birth have been around for centuries. There is nothing disrespectful about expressing doubts about it. Other artists have done this, such as Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand. In 1989, he directed Jesus of Montreal, a thought-provoking film that suggests that the father of Jesus was actually a Roman soldier stationed in Palestine.

Rather than try to shut down Thompson's play, I think we should welcome plays and movies like Jesus of Montreal and Lies of a Promiscuous Woman. People of faith may not agree with their points of view, but plays, movies and books like that can get people talking about religion.

One group that has taken the right approach to things like this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When the controversial musical The Book of Mormon came out, they didn't mount protests or write angry letters, even though the play contains a fair amount of profanity and explicit sexual references.

Instead, the church saw it as a chance to tell North Americans more about who Mormons are and what they believe. At theatres in the U.S. and Canada, members of the church can sometimes be found handing out literature and engaging people in conversation.

Maybe the problem isn't that there are plays and movies that are offensive, sacrilegious or even blasphemous, but that there aren't enough of them. After all, throngs of people are not going to show up at churches or other places of worship to explore issues of faith and belief. If people in Canada are going to encounter faith today, it will more likely be in places they actually frequent -- places like theatres or fringe festivals.

It has been said the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. Today, when the dominant response to religion of any kind seems to be "whatever," maybe it's a good thing to be shaken up a little by an artist like Teresa Thompson.

And Charlie Hebdo.

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