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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.
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Category: offence
The Godbaby poster

Posted on 05 September 2012, 5:05

I’m a member of the team behind ChurchAds.Net, which has been producing national advertising campaigns for Christmas and Easter in the UK for almost 20 years. We’ve been running our ‘Christmas starts with Christ’ campaign for the past three Christmases, and the 2012 poster, featuring Godbaby, was launched yesterday. In the week or two leading up Christmas Day, Godbaby will be up there on billboards and bus shelters and outside local churches.

The poster comes with a choice of straplines. For a no-nonsense take on the incarnation, there’s ‘He cries. He wees. He saves the world.’ But for the faint of heart, which will probably include some churches, there’s the alternative version: ‘The gift that loves you back’. See both versions here.

I admire the poster for doing two things. First for talking in the language of today. During the autumn, advertising on buses, billboards and TV screens will be full of toys and products promising to make Christmas better. This poster will raise the same expectation, but it points to the Bethlehem baby as the one thing that can save us. And it undercuts commercial Christmas by saying in effect, ‘It’s not products you need, but Godbaby’.

Second, I appreciate its strong take on the God who becomes one of us to the point of bodily functions. For me, ‘He cries. He wees’ is a brilliant and unexpected connection between the world of dolls, where the hair ‘really grows’, and the world of the Christian faith, where God really becomes a living, breathing, crying, sneezing, weeing human being.

Some Christians will heartily dislike the boldness of that, which they’ll argue is irreverent or even blasphemous. In fact, hostile comment has already started to arrive, with someone emailing to call the poster ‘awful and repulsive’. That’s fair enough, as all Christians are entitled to have strong feelings about how their faith is publicly portrayed.

What do you think? Do you like the poster for its risk-taking attempt to communicate Jesus today? Do you disagree with it for portraying the Son of God as a plastic doll? Or what?

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Red Bull gives up Jesus for Lent

Posted on 17 March 2012, 3:38

‘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.

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Photo of Hamza Kashgari
The Satanic tweets

Posted on 16 February 2012, 4:21

When Salman Rushdie was given his very own fatwa calling for his death back in 1989, it was because he had written a large novel, The Satanic Verses. But now it seems you only need to post three tweets to get yourself a blasphemy trial and death sentence in Saudi Arabia.

Hamza Kashgari, a 22 year-old Saudi poet and former newspaper columnist, posted his tweets on Mawlid, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad (on 4 February) and fled the country a few days later. He’s now languishing in a Saudi jail while the talk among Muslim clerics is of a trial for blasphemy or apostasy, even though Kashgari has apologised. ‘I have made a mistake, and I hope Allah and all those whom I have offended will forgive me,’ he’s reported to have said.

Here are English translations of the three tweets…

On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.

On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.

On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

It’s chilling (but not all that surprising) to think that such polite scepticism towards the prophet could lead to a Facebook group calling for your execution, with 25,000 members and climbing. Most of the posts there are in Arabic, but it’s worth looking at in a motorway rubbernecking sort of way. It’s a surprise that Facebook allows such a group.

Christians have no cause to be smug. Comments such as these expressed in the Middle Ages would have earned you an interview with your handy local branch of the Inquisition. And as recently as 1921, a Bradford trouser salesman, John William Gott, was sentenced to nine months in prison with hard labour for the crime of blasphemy. He had published a pamphlet depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem like a clown on the back of two donkeys. Gott died soon after his release.

I’ve never been able to get my head around the idea of blasphemy. I know as a believer that it can feel hurtful or embarrassing if someone ridicules the Lord or makes a joke about the crucifixion, but the idea that the honour of God might in some way be damaged by that seems laughable. The Victorian Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon once said, ‘Defend the Bible? I’d as soon defend a lion!’ and my take on blasphemy is that God is big enough to take it on the chin.

When the Saudi information minister, Abdul-Aziz Khoja, said that he ‘wept and got very angry’ when he read Hamza Kashgari’s tweets, I read his comments as the sort of pious grandstanding that has always given blasphemy its fearful power. After all, this is never a private ‘sin’. The discovery and punishment of blasphemy is always public, and it’s all about social control.

A Facebook page, Save Hamza Kashgari, has now been set up and has just over 3,000 likes (i.e. it’s eight times smaller than the group calling for his execution). Check it for comments and the phone numbers of Saudi embassies in various countries. People there are encouraging each other to give them a call.

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Engraving of book burning
Burning holy things

Posted on 06 April 2011, 3:07

Pastor Terry Jones of Florida finally got to burn the Qur’an on 20 March, months after he put the holy book on death row and despite appeals for clemency from Barack Obama. Bizarrely, Jones’s church, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, subjected the Qur’an to a show trial, and four forms of execution were considered: burning, drowning, firing squad or shredding.

I don’t think shredding was available in medieval times (thanks be to God for that), but the popular practice of burning, always such a crowd-pleaser back then and a favourite of the church, won out in the end, and the Qur’an was soaked in kerosene and burned to a crisp.

As a direct and easily forseeable consequence, protests were sparked in Afghanistan and five UN staff killed, allegedly by agents of the Taliban. Pastor Jones, clearly a man of limited imagination as well as charity, is reported to be unrepentant.

Writer and publisher Jon M Sweeney wrote an interesting piece in the Huffington Post in response, reflecting on the correct way to dispose of unwanted holy books. Copies of scripture which are worn out are honourably buried and shown the respect given to human beings when they die, he said. This is how old and ragged scrolls of the Torah are laid to rest, as well as ancient copies of the Qur’an.

Jon Sweeney himself has buried Bibles with cracked leather covers and well worn pages in his back garden, and he imagines future owners of his house puzzling over what they find when they do some gardening.

The respect normally given to the scriptures of almost all religious traditions highlights the incredible shock value of Pastor Jones’s Qur’an burning. When violence is done to a book which is normally treated with reverence and care, the impact is emotional.

Jon Sweeney’s piece reminded me of something I’d read a long time ago about orthodox icons and what happens to them when their images fade beyond recognition. I actually have an old icon in that state, and I’ve been reluctant to simply throw it away. How are sacred objects treated at the end of their working lives?

Fr David Moser, a Russian Orthodox priest in Indiana, asks ‘what then do we do with those things – dried bread, old icons or other holy items – of which we wish to dispose in a respectful manner? Such things should be burned and then the ashes buried in a place where they will not be walked upon.’

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Washington DC agrees: ‘A holy item, even if it has lost its original appearance, should always be treated with reverence.’

But it wasn’t always like this. Writing in the 7th century, this is how St Leontius, a bishop of Cyprus, defended icons against the charge that they were idols: ‘If it is the wood of the image that we worship as God… then we would not throw the image into the fire when the picture fades, as we often do. And again, as long as wood is fastened together in the form of a cross I venerate it because it is a likeness of the wood on which Christ was crucified. If it should fall to pieces, I throw the pieces into the fire.’

Leontius’s approach sounds very straightforward and robust. His description of ‘throwing the image into the fire’ does not sound like disposing of something ‘in a respectful manner’ to me. Possibly he is exaggerating in his eagerness to show that icons are not idols. Or maybe his bonfire of old and unwanted icons reflects a time when sacred objects were handled with more confidence and less fear.

Either way, how we behave towards the precious and revered objects of our own faith and other faiths, and why we do it, deserves careful thought.

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Ice cream ad with pregnant nun
Ice cream, sex and blasphemy

Posted on 30 October 2010, 4:26

It was Häagen-Dazs who first put ice cream and sex together in a commercial. Their TV ads in the mid-90s showed sexy young couples spoon-feeding each other with creamy gloop, and suddenly ice cream had passed the age of consent and was an adult rather than a kid thing.

So when ice cream maker Antonio Federici launched a campaign of magazine ads, they decided to go a bit further along the road of naughtiness. This summer, their two ads featured a pregnant nun and two Catholic priests about to move in for a kiss (click the links to see large images of the ads). ‘We Believe in Salivation’ was the text on the priests ad.

Eighteen people complained when they were run in the UK’s Grazia, The Lady and Look magazines. In two judgments, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld the complaints and ruled that each ‘ad must not appear again in its current form’. The reason? The priests ad ‘was likely to be interpreted as mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics and was therefore likely to cause serious offence to some readers’.

That sentence has the word ‘likely’ twice, which should have given the ASA a very good reason to think a bit harder about this poor judgment. The adjudications are here and here and include the defence put up by Antonio Federici.

The National Secular Society has complained that the ASA is ‘reintroducing blasphemy restrictions back into Britain’, two years after the offence was abolished by parliament – and it’s hard to disagree with that. Religious faith in Western culture is publicly debated today as it has never been before and it’s largely lost the deference and privilege which used to surround it like a shabby halo.

The weapon it still has, though, is a passive-aggressive one: ‘Don’t offend us, because our beliefs are sacred and above humour and mockery.’ It’s a weapon which has clearly worked wonders with the ASA.

A few years ago, we ran a competition on Ship of Fools called The Laugh Judgment, in which we invited readers to send us the funniest and most offensive religious jokes they knew. One thousand jokes were sent in, and we published the best of them so we could talk about what made them so funny and so offensive.

I noticed at the time that the most popular jokes included a small cast of stock comedy characters: the Nun, the Pope, Mother Superior, the Priest, the Bishop. All of them were put into comedy situations involving sex. It has ever been thus, since the time of Chaucer at least. As a subject, sex and religion simply is funny, because the latter makes such heavy weather of the former.

pregnant pope advert

The Antonio Federici ads are hardly the height of original comedy, and so there’s really no reason for surprise or offence. Even nuns and priests make these sorts of jokes behind closed doors. And British advertising used to understand that too, as witnessed by the press ad above from the 1980s. People probably complained then, but the ad still ran.

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Picture of religion is garbage poster
Religion is garbage

Posted on 26 August 2010, 23:50

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.’

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picture showing the cover of playboys portuguese edition
When low-grade offence offends

Posted on 14 July 2010, 5:19

The past week has been a pretty good time for images intended to shock religious people – and religious people have been performing their expected role faithfully.

The publishers of the Portuguese edition of Playboy put Jesus on this month’s cover (above, with black strip to protect the identity of the female model, ha ha), and were sacked by Playboy USA for their trouble. Presumably, Hugh Hefner is worried that the image will damage sales of the venerable porn mag among fundamentalists, which must be considerable.

And in Moscow, the curators of Forbidden Art, an exhibition of satirical art pieces which other galleries refused, were fined 350,000 roubles (that’s £7,500) after a two year trial supported by right-wing groups connected to the Russian Orthodox Church. The exhibition included a crucifixion with Lenin’s head replacing that of Jesus, an icon of the Mother and Child filled with caviar, and Jesus next to the golden arches of McDonalds with the slogan, ‘This is my body’.

Not great art, but also not great offence. And anyway, when did Christians start thinking they had the right to stop people offending them, or for ‘blasphemy’ to be treated as a criminal offence, instead of using events like this as a trigger to discussion about faith? Probably as far back as AD 313, when Constantine converted and the Roman Empire became ‘Christian’.

It’s alarming to see the Russian Orthodox Church with real power in its hands again, and it’s a reminder of how ugly church can be. To see some of the Forbidden Art exhibits online, visit the Russia! blog.

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picture showing the poster by molly norris with domestic objects saying they are the likeness of the prophet muhammad
Mocking Muhammad

Posted on 22 May 2010, 18:07

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.

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