Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:


In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

Miscellaneous Musings

Fear and Islam

A friend of mine alerted me to the recent banning of another book because it is allegedly offensive to Islam. The book is called The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Even though it is a work of fiction praising one of Muhammad’s wives and is supposedly written with high regard for the Islamic faith, and despite taking submissions from Islamic scholars before publication, the book has been banned from various countries, including my own, South Africa. Islamic fear tactics regularly twist the arms of policy makers, but I think the world has handled Islam badly. I’m not in favour of causing offence for the sake of it, but the Islamic approach to offence seems similar to my three-year-old‘s approach to being denied her way. My daughter has recently attempted using the tactic:

a) give me what I want, or
b) I will do naughty thing x.

I explained to her that I cannot entertain that bargain, on the grounds that if I did, I would either be giving her what is bad or teaching her to be bad. I explained it in not much more simplified language than that, and she understood and accepted it.

Now it seems to me that whenever Islam says ‘dance to our tune, or we’ll blow little bits off of you’, we should gently tell them that that’s not going to happen. If they want to debate whether or not the ‘offending’ item is fit for human consumption, then, by all means, we can talk like grown-ups about it. But walking on eggs around international brattery is only encouraging it. My three-year-old can see the ethical problem in doing so, how about asking Islam to grow up a bit?

I’m also prompted to consider whether Christians do much better on this front. Do we picket and boycott the right things for the right reasons?

Excitement and abbreviated cricket games

20-20 cricket (a far shortened version of the already-shortened limited overs format) has injected some excitement into the public perception of cricket. Unfortunately, much like the American suggestion that soccer goals be enlarged and the field of play shrunk (in order to increase the number of goals scored), it fundamentally misunderstands what it is that generates excitement.

The thinking seems to be that the exciting things in cricket are sixes and fours (high scoring aggressive shots) and wickets (when the batsman gets dismissed). And the exciting periods in the game are usually the first 10 overs, when the ball is new, and the last 10, when the tension builds to its climax. So, surely a game is more exciting if you maximise the aggressive batting, and if you remove the middle overs in which all that banal stuff happens, jamming together the first 10 and the last 10 overs?

Unfortunately not. This pays attention to what the exciting events are, but not what makes them exciting. It ignores contrast, context and climax. A four or a six is exciting because it stands in contrast to the long, patient game of collecting single runs. If you set up a game in which fours and sixes are the norm, they cease to be exceptions, and therefore lose their power to genuinely excite. In fact, when the batsman doesn’t score, that is the more significant and ‘exciting’ event, albeit of a more frustrating variety. This is also the reason why netting a basketball is not exciting, even though the player has scored. It is expected that he should do so regularly.

Secondly, context is key in generating excitement. An aggressive stroke is exciting because of the degree of risk that it entails. In the context of a long game, that risk is pronounced, because if the batsman gets out, it puts more pressure on the less accomplished batsmen to follow, because they might be unable to survive the long time that remains in the innings. In a very short format, there is far less time to bat, and so far less risk to the team if a batsman plays too aggressively. So, again, his aggression is no longer exciting, it is necessary.

Finally, the climax of a long game is exciting because it combines the power of the first two elements. The end period of aggression stands in contrast to the early periods of patience and careful strategy. It is powerful and tense because it is the playing of a team’s final strategic cards, with everything at stake: one has to take risks commensurate with how well one did in the patient periods. And most importantly, with more time and greater gravitas, there is space made for excellence and heroism. Someone, through skill and determination, has to take the game by the proverbial scruff of the neck. If there’s room for greatness in a 20-over game, you’d need to pack it into about 5 minutes.

Terror and Tension at the Movies

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that horror movies are truly terrifying only in so far as they’re able to make us believe that the setting and characters are possible, or even normal. If we’re able to imagine ourselves inhabiting the movie world, then we’re able to feel the supernormal circumstances that much more deeply.

I happen to hate horror movies, and I’ve seen hardly any of them. However, the principle of believability is so important to all kinds of dramatic tension, and yet it is so often ignored by Hollywood. Stories almost always involve a character triumphing over the odds, and the bigger the obstacle, the more satisfying and uplifting is the victory. But how often the story falls apart when credulity is over-stretched.

Consider Schwarzenegger’s ‘Commando’. Admittedly, it is a doltish action movie, but in the climactic scene, Arnie besieges a heavily guarded fortress single-handedly. Now, this would be fine if the story had a remotely plausible way in which this was possible. But, no, Arnie runs for 100 metres across an open lawn while 50 mercenaries fire on him with automatic weapons. Every one of his haphazardly sprayed bullets seems to find its mark, and he is never hit. Writing in an unacknowledged miracle to save your character means no tension for the audience, only irritation. And the same applies to every hero who’s ever fallen three storeys and then caught a ledge with his fingertips; or any character who’s been miraculously thrown to safety by an explosion rather than being torn apart; or any movie in which Woody Allen gets the girl.

Troubling Trends in the Perception of Justice

In the super-violent Australian film, ‘The Proposition’, Ray Winstone plays a law-man trying to ‘civilise’ the wild Australian territories in the early days of colonial occupation. Winstone has captured the youngest member of a gang who raped and killed a pregnant woman, but, seeing as he is still a teenager and of diminished mental capacity, plans to use him to draw out the rest of the gang who are responsible for the atrocity. A local politician decides, however, that the furious public should be appeased, and that this young man needs to be punished. He sentences him to 100 lashes with a heavy whip, enough to kill him.

The following day, the outraged public surround the jailhouse to see that this sentence is carried out. Winstone’s character vows to oppose them, promising to kill whoever tries to enforce this unjust punishment. Just as the film promises to dole out some rugged lessons on impartial justice, a strange thing happens. His wife, played by Emily Watson, arrives, and having only recently discovered what the boy has done, with tears in her eyes, she says to her husband, ‘What if it was me? What if he’d done this to me?’ As this thought sinks in, Winstone lowers his weapon stands aside, and the lashing begins. By 40 lashes, the boy is unconscious, public blood-lust is replaced with horror, and the execution of the sentence ends prematurely. Even still, the boy succumbs to his wounds.

Movies are often not the most deeply considered philosophical vehicles, and so this disappointing scene in the midst of a powerful-yet-disgusting film passed me by. Or it would have, had I not come across exactly this sentiment in the mouth of politicians linked to controversy surrounding child rape.

There is much debate currently over whether the death penalty is too strong a sentence for child rapists, and that’s a question for another day. What interests me is the appeal that is often made to ‘imagine that it was your daughter that was raped’, which is what this politician said. The disturbing thing about this request is that it represents exactly the opposite of what ‘blind justice’ aims to achieve. The way in which we decide fair punishment for crimes is by reasoned and impartial judgement (in so far as that is possible for men). We achieve the opposite by attempting to be guided by the powerful emotions of the wronged party. The reason why we have a judiciary in the first place is because the wronged party cannot be relied upon to repay what a crime demands and nothing more. He executes revenge, not justice.

The Biblical maxim of ‘an eye for an eye’ is often misunderstood as providing justification for revenge, and yet it actually was given as a call to lawmakers to return only what a crime deserves. If we run with present trends in the public perception of justice, we will be avenging the loss of a tooth with an eye, or the loss of an eye with a life.