Is nothing sacred?

piss-christPost-modernism enjoys mocking the sacred. The “artist” Andres Serrano won acclaim for sinking a crucifix in a urine-filled jar. Chris Ofili got applause for covering the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. The Da Vinci Code imagines Jesus hitched to Mary Magdalene. The Book of Daniel depicts Jesus as a New Age therapist. Rolling Stone encourages Kanye West’s messiah complex by putting him on their cover, bleeding from a crown of thorns.

God doesn’t get much respect these days.

Mocking the sacred used to be out of bounds, but the lines have been moved. Faith and faith’s symbols are fair game for ridicule because the cult of free speech trumps traditional religion. Taboos still exist, but blasphemy is not one of them.

(One doubts, for instance, that a piece called Piss Betty Friedan could ever find its way into the Guggenheim.)

So, in this rich, progressive tradition of mocking the sacred, a Denmark newspaper decided to poke a little fun at the prophet Mohammed. And, to their chagrin, Muslims didn’t seem to get the joke. Instead of boycotting salted herring, they made death threats. Instead of writing earnest letters to the editor, they burned embassies. It seems these Muslims take their sacred symbols rather seriously.

US news organizations suddenly feel cowed by fears of reprisals. On the one hand, there is The First Amendment™. On the other hand, there’s Salman Rushdie, who is still looking over his shoulder ever since he wrote The Satanic Verses, and the director Theo van Gogh, who was shot and stabbed to death for offending Muslims with his film Submission. Some of these Muslims play for keeps.

Among the brave pronouncements by US talking heads are these:

The U.S. news media, by refusing to run these cartoons, are giving in to intellectual and religious terrorism. A separate standard is being applied here out of fear of physical retaliation. —Alan Dershowitz

I think that if there’s a free press, there’s a right to commit blasphemy. —Jack Shafer, Slate

Christians have become accustomed to artists’ offending their religious symbols. They can protest … but the right of the individual to say or depict offensive messages or symbols is not really in dispute. —Andrew Sullivan

And yet, oddly, these cartoons have not found their way into the US media. Lots of brave words, but not much action. Interesting.

Actually, I’m not suggesting a deliberate campaign aimed at insulting Muslims. Nor do we need a quota system designed to assure that every faith is insulted equally. (It’s Tuesday, so it must be Bash Buddhists day!)

What I’m suggesting is a bit of liberal soul searching. What’s with this infantile need to insult people of faith? Universities have been eager to embrace hate speech codes prohibiting slurs based on ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation — why are slurs against religious beliefs and sacred symbols permissible in a liberal society?

I’m not suggesting a ban on criticism. Intelligent people ought to be able to engage vigorously in free speech without sinking to insults, mockery or blasphemy.

It feels liberating to break taboos, but we may not be a better society for it. We often hear talk of the “culture wars.” Is it possible that in this area we could agree to a truce? Would there be any great harm to the cause of progressivism if religion and religious people were treated with a modicum of respect?

Update: There is much being written in the ether about these cartoons and freedom of speech. Two I recommend are Us, Them and the Rest by Joe Carter (Evangelical Outpost), and Does the press have the right to mock religions? by Mollie Ziegler (Get Religion). Good perspectives, worth reading.

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  1. I got an MA in English at OSU around 89-91. I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to, and what I learned was different than what I wanted to learn.

    One impression that did come across was the connection seen between art and violence to established beliefs/tradition. Somehow, for some of the faculty, there seemed to be inherent value in attacking things related to mystery, miracle, or authority.

    One professor especially, who had grown up Catholic and turned against it, seemed bent this direction. He has an article on the net tying The Passion movie to the Abu Ghraib scandal. (But, if I remember right, he likes St. Matthew’s Passion. He thinks it achieves an impact the movie only dreams of.)

    It’s like little children, testing and pushing boundaries all the time. They think it’s brave and creative to break things, that they’re going to find some new truth behind whatever they break.

    Anyway, that was my foggy take on it. And I’m sure it’s foggy.

  2. Not foggy at all. It’s a good insight, and I think it’s a modern perversion of the ancient idea that art exposes truth by showing us things as they really are. Somewhere “a new perspective on the ordinary experiences of humanity” morphed into “tear down the ordinary experiences of humanity.” Not sure how that happened, but it’s probably something Francis Schaeffer talked about… I should go read him again.

  3. What I’m suggesting is a bit of liberal soul searching. What’s with this infantile need to insult people of faith? Universities have been eager to embrace hate speech codes prohibiting slurs based on ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation — why are slurs against religious beliefs and sacred symbols permissible in a liberal society?

    Fundamentally, it’s easier to annoy people you don’t agree with than to make a meaningful argument against them, or their beliefs. All the “art” that is mentioned is basically that – people trying to insult, and not argue a point.

    So, because we have free speech (a good thing), people are free to be jerks (a bad thing), and then people retaliate and riot (another bad thing).

    I’d rather than try to call a moratorium on this kind of speech, which can and would be viewed as censorship or attacks on the freedom of speech (good thing), we need to deal with the bad things (ie people being jerks and rioting) without harming speech.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a good way of doing this in the angry, broken world that we live in.

  4. Charlie the problem I have with this is that it is not blasphemy, and Mohammed is not sacred. I think you make some good points, but it is also a bit pomo sounding to simply lump these cartoons in with blasphemy. Offensive to a religious system – but not true blasphemy.

    I’ve seen the 12 cartoons as they have been published in the NZ media – and while some are what I would call edgy, some are completely innocuous – I mean one is just a guy with his donkey walking along.

    I am going to post on this I think – I agree that there’s junk that doesn’t edify us in the media, but I understand why the NZ newspapers and tv stations showed the cartoons.

  5. Thanks for your good comments, as always.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “it is not blasphemy, and Mohammed is not sacred”. I’m not sure Christians can define blasphemy for Muslims, which is my point.

    For instance, the Quran itself is considered the very words of Allah, not spoken through Mohammed but dictated word for word. As such, no Quran can be considered authoritative unless it is written in Arabic, and the very book is considered a holy object.

    As a Christian, I don’t agree with Islam and I don’t think Mohammed was a prophet of God. As a Christian, I don’t expect the secular world to honor the things that I honor. Christians view the world as blinded by sin, and we see the lost through Christ’s eyes, with compassion and grace.

    Islam, on the other hand, sees the world as hostile to Allah and his will. It is a super-legalistic faith, easily offended by liberal western values and attitudes. It sees itself as wielding the sword of God’s judgment in the world, which is pretty dangerous.

    Our western liberalism is not practiced in a vacuum. If we mock what Islam considers holy, they will not just sit back and take it. That’s the dilemma. Christians will just wring their hands when their faith is maligned. Muslims (some, not all) get even.

  6. I’m not sure what you mean by “it is not blasphemy, and Mohammed is not sacred”. I’m not sure Christians can define blasphemy for Muslims, which is my point.

    Charlie what I mean is that muslims may consider it blasphemy (although I don’t think they use that word actually – I think they have their own word for this type of action – haram. But in the absolute sense I won’t call it blasphemy – it isn’t. And while we can acknowledge the belief, we can “define” blasphemy – blasphemy applies to the true God. It becomes a bit universalist to call everything blasphemy when it isn’t.

    I’m aware of what is believed about the Qur’an – having read it. As William Levi says (he was tortured in Sudan to try and force him to convert to Islam) there are moderate muslims and there are the jihadists – but the problem is the theology. The theology itself is flawed. He wrote some excellent points on the theological basis and how it differs from Christianity.

    If we mock what Islam considers holy, they will not just sit back and take it. That’s the dilemma. Christians will just wring their hands when their faith is maligned. Muslims (some, not all) get even.

    Some (not all) are doing these violent things anyway. I think that’s been the point for the media in some countries – not to mock but to say we aren’t going to be intimidated by violence. Since we get terrorism and violence anyway and we’ve had enough. I don’t think Christians just wring their hands. Personally when Christianity is maligned I sometimes think the maligner is missing out, or I figure it as about what to expect, or I pray. I don’t torch embassies and walk around with a banner saying people should be beheaded. Christians are being persecuted terribly in some countries and maybe we should get more vocal about that.

  7. I agree that the West can’t let itself be intimidated. I agree that for some, this is just a way to excuse violence they are already committing. And I’m not a universalist, so of course I agree that this is not genuine blasphemy, but perceived blasphemy.

    Yet, it seems counterproductive to me to insult Islam while trying to encourage the growth of a strong, moderate wing of Islam. One does not insult Mohammed without insulting all Muslims, moderates and jihadists alike.

    Secular progressives believe they have a right to mock religious beliefs. I, too, pray for them. I pray that they will grow up, and I pray that they will fall in love with Christ. I think their immaturity in this regard is pouring gasoline on a raging fire that’s going to burn down their house and mine, too.

  8. I don’t want to drag this out – but will just say you are coming with an American point of view.

    Our media are not like yours and we are not at war with any country right now. Our media have been incredibly tolerant and inclusive. We have a different context. I think people here would say the US could take a leaf from our book on some of these issues. We don’t have the rhetoric of some US media going on. I don’t think “secular progressives” adequately encapsulates the reasons. Some of the reasons but not all by any means. Muslims in NZ aren’t afraid to step outside the front door every time there is a terrorist attack elsewhere. People don’t spit on them in the street. It’s different here.

    We don’t see ourselves as part of the US strategy – we see ourselves as ourselves.

  9. Post-modernists tend to mock religion simply because they are human, and our built-in human emotional defense systems require that we denegrate the things that we fear. They also require us to develop a rationalized superiority toward the things we fear, so I believe that much of the blasphemy coming from the elites is similar to the quaint fun had by Colonial Europeans at the expense of the natives living in the lands that they occupied. It’s very easy for us to make fun of others’ belief systems when we consider them to be far below our own level of reason on the evolutionary ladder.

    On the other hand, fear can be a great motivator. Much of the success of post-modernism in the West is due to the fact that the Christian church doesn’t pursue its enemies with armed mobs. The absence of European secularist intellectuals from recent public discourse has been very conspicuous indeed.


    With regard to you post on Shari’ah, I apreciated the quotes from Paul Marshall. Others too have pointed out that we often fail to understand that Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures are still deeply spiritual, compared with the secular nature of Westernism. Oftentimes this spirituality is misplaced; in other instances (as we are seeing with today’s riots) it is manipulated by totalitarian governments, in combination with deliberatey-cultivated ignorance, to turn the anger of the people toward a “bogeyman” enemy (the West) and away from their own domestic shortcomings.

    How the West chooses to react to this display of anger will determine how the rest of our mortal lives will be spent — either in relative freedom or obedient submission. Truly these are interesting times.

  10. Excellent points. The deep spirituality of the entire non-western world (whether Muslim or Hindu or animist) is so central to their world-view and the daily practices of their lives that western secularists cannot relate, cannot even grasp what motivates them. So much of western society has forgotten what it means to live in awe (and fear) of a God or gods, that it is as if we speak to each other in two different languages, neither understanding the other at all.

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