Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
A lovely and intriguing piece in the Guardian today by my friend Matthew Cresswell, on how Nasa imposed radio silence on Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin when he took communion shortly after the first moon landing.
Nasa was being sued at the time for the religious content of the Apollo 8 mission, when 10 verses from the first chapter of Genesis were read out on Christmas Eve while the astronauts orbited the moon, so Buzz was told to play down his private act of communion.
Aldrin’s description of the moment caught my eye: ‘I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.’
It reminded me of a cartoon I drew for my 1991 book of cartoons, When Clergymen Ruled the Earth, about the perils of hitting escape velocity during Pentecostal-style rave-ups on the lunar surface. Since the book’s out of print (although used copies are selling for one penny on Amazon, hallelujah!) I’m posting it here in celebration.
‘Do you think Jesus had a sense of humour?’ The question was posted this afternoon on Twitter and was quickly followed by a chorus of right answers.
‘Yup He did!’
‘Yes, and does :-)’
Most Christians I know think Jesus could be funny, and that he did the 1st century versions of standup with gags such as the story of the exploding wineskin, or the chap happily walking round with a great big plank of wood in his face.
But when you think about it, being funny is only half the story. If someone’s asked, ‘Have you got a sense of humour?’ it usually means, ‘Can you take a joke?’ After all, it’s easy to be funny at the expense of someone else, but what happens when they do it back to you? Can you laugh at yourself?
So what about Jesus? Does he mind having his leg pulled? Is he OK if we crack jokes about him? Is he cool with ‘Jesus H Christ’? Something tells me that most Christians think not, and think not quite strongly, as they believe even mild jokes about Jesus are blasphemy. This unfortunately paints the Lord as someone who laughs at others, but gets monumentally angry when they return the compliment. It makes him look like a bully.
I’ve been thinking about this on and off the past day or two because a Red Bull advert being screened on South African TV was pulled when Christians (with Muslim backup) said it was deeply offensive. The ad features an amusing – to me, at least – cartoon where Jesus walks on water and the disciples question whether he’s been drinking Red Bull, as (in the product’s oft-used slogan) ‘Red Bull gives you wiiings’.
Jesus denies drinking Red Bull, and when one disciple asks if this is another of his miracles, he says, ‘It’s no miracle, you just have to know where the stepping stones are.’ He then almost slips off a stone and says ‘Jesus’ under his breath.
Cardinal Napier, Archbishop of Durban, issued a statement immediately after the ad was aired saying how ‘disappointed’ he was with Red Bull whom he chided for their ‘satirical manner’ and for ‘overstepping a mark’. He suggested that Catholics should fast from consuming the drink until Easter and added that Red Bull’s advertising and PR people ought to get some ‘sensitivity training’. My counter-suggestion is that the cardinal gets some therapy for sense of humour failure, especially focusing on the gift of humility which the Lord bestows when others laugh at you.
The advertising standards authority received over 499 complaints, at which point Red Bull withdrew the ad from broadcast.
In fairness to Red Bull, I think there’s something inherently funny about the walking on water miracle. The few times I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, I’ve always seen people at the water’s edge larking about, pretending to walk on the waves and getting friends to snap them doing it.
It’s the flashiest of Jesus’ miracles, almost like a bit of divine showing off, and it comes close to Jesus indulging the second temptation, where the Devil tries to get him to stage this exact same miracle of defying gravity.
The story seems to attract humour like a magnet. Even the liberal rationalisations of it in weighty commentaries can’t help veering off into farce. One scholar suggested that Jesus walked on a hidden sandbank (which makes Red Bull’s cartoon look like the exposition of a viewpoint rather than outright satire), while another suggested he was just wading through the surf. In 2006, a professor of oceanography argued that Jesus walked on ice, which raises the question, why not throw in a pair of skates too?
Even before Jesus’ time, walking on water was spoken about as laughable. ‘He was rash enough to think that he could make ships sail on dry land and men walk over the sea,’ says a verse about an arrogant king in the Second Book of Maccabees.
My biggest problem with Christians who get uncontrollably ‘offended’ by mildly amusing cartoons such as Red Bull’s is not just that it makes Jesus look like a bully, but it undermines his humanity. I think I can just about make the case that refusing to countenance jokes about Jesus belongs to an ancient heresy called docetism.
In that heresy, the belief that Jesus was God was held so strongly that the belief in his humanity withered. The average docetist would say that Jesus only appeared to be human, and that he never actually ate, drank, slept, suffered, died… or had a physical life at all. It’s a very damaging belief, because if Jesus was only God, and was never truly human as we are human, how can he be ‘God with us’ and give us the help we need? It destroys the Christian story.
If Jesus was a real, living and breathing human being, then comedy given and received was part of his experience. And since Christians believe he remains human after his resurrection, then comedy, jokes and funny cartoons made at his expense are an expected part of the Jesus experience too. Most Christians (and probably 100% of cardinals) might not want to join in that comedy themselves, but they shouldn’t be surprised by it or nurture offence about it.
Edward Abbey, the American author and hellraiser, once said, ‘Jesus don’t walk on water no more; his feet leak.’ Now that’s sterner stuff, comedically, than the Red Bull ad. But it’s still a joke I think Jesus would be able to take without reaching for a thunderbolt.
Some Ship of Fools news… Steve Goddard and I have been working with the UK’s Bible Society over the past year to create a Facebook app in time for Christmas. Roll on Christmas is a two-minute movie in which you cast your Facebook friends in a nativity play, with their faces appearing on animated characters made from toilet rolls.
I don’t want to post any plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that the traditional nativity story quickly goes down the toilet, with the enthusiastic help of bungling angels, a dastardly King Herod and some inappropriate gifts.
We’re working with interactive agency Complete Control of Bath for design and animation magic, and Brandmovers of London for the social media wizardry, and the whole thing has been made possible by a generous grant from Jerusalem Productions, who funded The Ark back in 2003. It’s our biggest project since then and we’re hoping it’ll create a similar splash.
Our launch is set for the end of October.
I’ll post more on this shortly, but for now, if you want to be among the first to support Roll on Christmas, do Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more about the project, see this Ship of Fools feature.
I’ve been reading two books alongside each other in bed at night. It’s not something I would normally do as it’s too ambitious just before diving into sleep, but one is more of a serious read, while the other’s a graphic novel, so they make a good contrast.
John Berger’s Why Look at Animals? is in the Penguin Great Ideas series, and it’s a slim, readable book of short pieces in which Berger reflects on the dwindling and marginalized role of animals in our world. His argument is that humans once visibly shared the world with animals, who were present all around us, even in our cities. Animals were once ‘with man at the centre of his world,’ says Berger.
It’s hard to believe now that only a century ago, street life in London was full of horses who pulled carriages and buses and delivered goods. The invention of engines and the spread of towns and villages has driven domesticated animals and wildlife into retreat, while around the world animals are confined to safari parks or are becoming extinct.
The net effect, argues Berger, is that animals have ceased to be our companions and have either become pets, where they are accessorised into our lives, or a spectacle, like the creatures in zoos or the animals captured by the lens in David Attenborough programmes. ‘Everywhere animals disappear,’ says Berger. ‘In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance.’
I’m only halfway through Berger, but I finished the second book, Laika, by writer and illustrator Nick Abadzis, last night.
Set in the Cold War, this comic strip novel tells the story of a stray Moscow dog who became the most famous canine in the world when she was rocketed into space in 1957 by the Russians, just a month after the launch of Sputnik. Her name was Laika (Russian for ‘Barker’), although American newspapers quickly renamed her Muttnik.
The price of her fame as the first life form in space was high: there was no return to earth provided for Laika and she died of stress and overheating just hours after reaching orbit. The book tells her story poignantly, the words and images forming a meditation on trust, love, betrayal and the alienation of human beings from animals and each other.
There are frames in the comic strip which deliver emotional impact in a way no words could ever do, and there is poetry as Laika is shown flying in the dreams of the little girl who lost her forever on the streets. The final section of the book summons up fear and dread in the face of implacable events as powerfully as in any film. I finished reading in the early hours of the morning, long after I should have turned in for the night.
Nick Abadzis carried out detailed historical research in writing and artworking his book, but he also invented characters and situations to create a sort of myth of Laika, which like all potent myths gets to the deep heart of the story.
The book concludes with a genuine quote by one of the scientists, who said, 40 years after the Laika mission, ‘Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.’ Betraying the original companionship of animals carries a high price.
Biblical scholars have always been a bit cagey about three bizarre verses in Matthew’s Gospel, which come just after Jesus has expired on the cross. The verses (Matthew 27:51-53) read…
The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
But where experts fear to tread, comic strip artist Rob Liefeld has rushed in with Zombie Jesus! – a new strip he’s just started serializing on his website. In the strip, zombie hordes attack Jerusalem in the 48 hours after the crucifixion in search of the corpse of Christ. They’re led by the zombie of Judas, fresh after hanging himself, and opposed by Lazarus the Immortal.
All of which puts an interpretation on Matthew’s verses more colourful and exciting than any I ever heard in Bible college.
Liefeld, whose work has appeared in Marvel comics, is no stranger to mixing religion with the pumped-up heroes of comic strip. He collaborated with Phil Hotsenpiller, the teaching pastor of the Friends Church in Yorba Linda (a megachurch in southern California) to produce Armageddon Now: World War III, a graphic novel.
Hotsenpiller is a conference speaker on end-times prophecy, and the novel, which he wrote, is full of the phobias, prejudices and superstitions of modern-day eschatologists, not to mention generous helpings of violence. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to learn that he’s also written the script for Liefeld’s Zombie Jesus! It’s such a tiny step from the fantasy theology of the rapture and the great tribulation to zombies getting out of their graves.
How to describe the humour of Dave Walker, whose new book, The Exciting World of Churchgoing, was out at the end of last month? It’s as dry as a communion wafer stuck to the roof of your mouth.
Dave’s visual style is deceptively simple – with childlike drawings of bishops, people in pews and church architecture – and reminds me of Tim Hunkin’s Rudiments of Wisdom cartoons from the Observer in the 1980s. But what takes these above Hunkin is the humour, which is delivered through flatly factual text.
For example, a cartoon on the responsibilities of the church sound desk operator: ‘Moving the slider up a bit. Moving the slider down a bit. Every now and then pressing the “sudden unexpected feedback” button.’
The deadpanning and the simple drawings conceal an artful and inventive brain at work. Working consistently in this style takes time and planning, as well as the ever-necessary banging your head repeatedly on your drawing board.
Religious cartoonists who are genuinely funny should be treasured, because there aren’t many of them. There’s only one, so far as I know, whose speciality is English understatement… and that’s reason enough to buy this book.
A flyposting campaign is hitting the streets of Auckland in New Zealand this week with bad taste posters attacking Jesus, Muhammad, the Pope and Pentecostal ‘bishop’ Brian Tamaki. Under the headline ‘Religion is garbage’, the most incendiary poster shows a cartoon of Muhammad wearing a vest packed with explosives plus an alarm clock, with the slogan, ‘Tick-tock Muhammad’.
The campaign is a collaboration between Muckmouth, a New Zealand skateboard magazine, and Eshe, a subversive clothing company inspired by 90s skate culture. Eshe’s website is offering all four poster designs as t-shirts for $49.50 each, although none are available to buy yet.
A post from yesterday on the Eshe blog says, ‘This started out as a poster project (which are going up now!), but due to demand we are going to release these designs on T-Shirt and our first skateboard line. Get on to it and send us your hate mail!’ That’s an invitation which will very likely be amply accepted.
The hackneyed lampoons of religion (surely they could have come up with jokes that haven’t been done a million times before?) are matched by derivative graphics taken from the 1980s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, which themselves were a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.
No religious people seem to have made any comments I can find yet on the Net. Eshe say on their homepage: ‘The only slaughtering we endorse, is the slaughtering of the metaphorical sacred cows.’
It’s hard to know what was going on in the mind of Molly Norris, a previously little-known cartoonist in Seattle, who casually proposed celebrating 20 May as Everybody Draw Mohammed Day on her blog back in April (complete with her own cartoon, above). Presumably she’s never attacked a hornet’s nest with a large stick. Her post was a protest at Comedy Central’s decision to edit sections of an episode of South Park showing Muhammad dressed in a bear costume.
Norris’s proposal sparked a Facebook group campaigning for the event, under the banner of freedom of speech, which was quickly countered by other Facebook groups attacking it. Under a rain of angry emails, Norris withdrew her proposal, but by then the juggernaut was rolling. ‘It’s been horrible,’ she said in an interview. ‘I’m just trying to breathe and get through it.’
When I checked on the morning of 20 May, the Facebook group had 77,000 members and 6,000 images, most of them of the sort that would make the calmest imam delve into his filing cabinet for the section called fatwa. Looking at the brutality of the visual humour, I was reminded of a comment in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, where one of the storytellers says that ‘the nature of wit is such that its bite must be like that of a sheep rather than of a dog, for if it were to bite the listener like a dog, it would no longer be wit but abuse.’
By that point, Pakistan had blocked the whole of Facebook, and followed that up by blocking YouTube, which was carrying video contributions to the campaign. Later in the day, after the group soared past 100,000 members, Facebook removed it, presumably under pressure from protesters.
Out and out mockery of people’s deeply held beliefs has a long and undistinguished history. One of the earliest images we have of the crucifixion is a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall in Rome showing Jesus with the head of a donkey. That public attack on the Christian faith is mild compared with the savagery in the images collected on Facebook, and it’s surprising that the event hasn’t roused the mass demonstrations which followed the publication in 2005 of the infamous Muhammad cartoons in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Five people died then in the riots in Pakistan.
All religions, but especially the ones in the monotheism brand, need to find ways to take the piss out of themselves, since they have always been so brilliant at taking themselves too seriously. Religions with no sense of humour play especially badly in the western world where irony is in the very air we breathe. If religions can’t or won’t do this, they open themselves to cultural attack, and social media now make this possible in a fast-moving and extremely uninhibited way.
It takes just a few minutes to make an image trashing someone else’s deeply held beliefs, adding shock in the form of bestiality, paedophilia or whatever else comes to hand, and then posting it from the comfort of your laptop. But added to that is the high of performing on the Facebook stage, of knowing that my joke or insult will succeed in amusing or enraging thousands of others.
We’re suddenly living in the age of mass satire, where poorly-considered but deadly insults, barely clothed in humour, are published instantly and made available to a global audience. In the social furnace of Facebook, such rapidly accumulating insults create the visceral mood and momentum of a mob. Reading the wall comments of the ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ group, with posts pro and anti, is like hearing the bigoted chants of two opposed gangs burning with hatred for each other.
There has been an unexpected moment of redemption, though. In the run-up to 20 May, atheist and humanist students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison chalked stick figures on the ground of their campus, captioning them ‘Muhammad’. The Muslim Student Association found a witty way of responding, not by erasing the images, but by adding boxing gloves to the figures and the word ‘Ali’ after ‘Muhammad’.
Maybe if South Park had gone for the same visual gag, the whole thing might never have happened.