Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is Blasphemy Transferable?

Some years ago, in my earliest employment with Florida's prison system, I was presented with a unique moral question. An inmate addressed me with profane language, and I proceeded to write a disciplinary report, which of necessity had to include an exact quotation of the inmate's words. That day I was told by a prison officer that when reporting the inmate's words, I was required to type them "as is" -- including the, er, naughty bits, as Monty Python might say. No asterisks. No equivocations. Exact words.

This segues into today's question: If writing that report required me to write words that I ordinarily considered offensive to write or say -- was I guilty of the same moral offense as the inmate? And for today's posting: Is blasphemy transferable?

The question arose not once, but twice in the last week for me. In the first, a reader wrote asking of an advisory he was given that if, in a situation similar to mine, a Christian repeated a blasphemy offered by a non-believer, then that Christian also became guilty of blasphemy. (Why might they repeat it? I can't say, but one could conceive, for example, of having to do so for some sort of court case or legal proceeding, as I had to do above.)

The second was a bit more complicated. I recently released a TektonTV video which was a reply to the atheist NonStampCollector -- a fellow famous for scholarship nearly as good as his artwork. That's a joke, by the way: NonStampCollector's "art" consists of stick figures.

In one of his videos, he had presented a stick figure Jesus being corrected by a time traveler. In my reply, which was a parody, I decided to mock NonStampCollector's video by bringing in my own (non-stick figure) characters into my redrawn version of NonStampCollector's stick-figure universe. One of my characters declared that the stick figure universe was "designed by an atheist" as "their version of intelligent design," and also declared, quite plainly, that the stick figure Jesus was NOT the real Jesus. My video closed with my characters taking off in a spaceship which blew the heads off of all the stick figures -- including "Jesus" -- and an implication that the stick-figure Jesus was merely a robot.

One of my viewers, though, expressed a misgiving: By imitating NonStampCollector's blasphemous stick-figure Jesus, I was likewise blaspheming. So, the question again: Is blasphemy transferable?

In the first case, I would have to say no. Intention is critical to the act of blasphemy: The intention is to dishonor God. The Christian who repeats the blasphemy for some legal purpose isn't doing so to dishonor God. Indeed, if the recitation in some way impeached the actual blasphemer of wrongdoing, it arguably works to restore honor to God by taking honor away from the blasphemer. In the limited good conception of honor, the offense of blasphemy would not be transferred -- but honor would be, and in the right direction.

What then of the example of NonStampCollector? To begin, I am far from sure that even his original stick figure Jesus was blasphemy, though it conceivably could be. However, I see no evidence that NonStampCollector drew Jesus as a stick figure in order to cause offense. The reality is that NonStampCollector just isn't a talented artist -- just about everyone he draws is a stick figure! So while his Jesus was a somewhat misconceived one -- in the sense that he did misinterpret several of Jesus' teachings -- it was arguably not a blasphemous one.

But let us say for the sake of argument that this was his intention. Is my own parody then a blasphemy? Again, I'd have to say no, based on the plain testimony of my character that it was NOT the real Jesus. If it is blasphemy to do such things as I did to a false Jesus, then we have to ask: Do we then blaspheme by mocking a Jesus of the cults as something less than fully divine? Does it become blasphemy to say such things as that, the Jesus of liberal scholarship was someone no one would take the trouble to crucify? Is it blasphemy to describe the Jesus of Kaantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ as a basket case who is merely Kazantzakis' personal fantasy? I can't see how this would be anything but a case of again restoring honor to its proper place, if anything (here, restoring honor by correcting NonStampCollector's errors).

Of course, if you are the type of person who does not prefer to push the envelope as I do (smile), then that is as it should be. Romans 14 indicates we are not to condemn each other for these convictions.

Bottom line though -- blasphemy isn't transferable.


  1. Speaking of Monty Python, whom you referenced in the first paragraph, and in the context of blasphemy...

    What do you think of "The Life of Brian?" I saw it many years ago and laughed with it along with my buddies, but years later later looked back and had serious misgivings about what I had seen there and taken part in laughing about. Would you consider that to be a blasphemous film?

  2. "The Life of Brian," one of Monty Python's three feature-length movies, depicts a man named Brian who lived in Jerusalem at some time between 100 BC and AD 100. Despite having no apparent intentions on becoming any sort of religious leader, he nonetheless unintentionally attracts a following of crowds of people who are convinced that he is some sort of messianic figure, that he can and has worked miracles and that his words are full of otherworldly wisdom. Brian, on the other hand, just wants to live an ordinary life and seems annoyed by all the attention he is given by the crowds; all through the film he is seen trying to escape the adoring mob. The beginning of the film depicts his birth in a stable, with his confused mother being visited by equally confused Magi. The end of the film has him being crucified on a cross by the Romans. The last scene of the film shows a vast landscape of hundreds of people hanging on crosses all singing a happy-sounding song called "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." The snappy, happy tune is deliberately juxtaposed with the scene of torture and misery, and hints at existential meaninglessness with lyrics like "Life's a piece of s**t, when you look at it."

    This is an obvious parody of the life of Jesus, and seems to be an attempt to both suggest something like the "Jesus never existed" thesis and to use humor to bring shame on Jesus and the Christian tradition.

  3. I wouldn't say it's an attempt to suggest Jesus never existing, but it clearly suggests that Jesus was an ordinary man who's actions and sayings were misunderstood by those around him.

    While Life of Brian definitely is pretty bad, the elite Jewish Suicide Squad (not an assault force, they kill themselves on command, a la Masada) is hilarious.

  4. The Monty Python team themselves denied any attempt at blasphemy (indeed John Cleese commented that Jesus is one person who is completely immune to satire, "wouldn't the world be a better place if we all followed his teachings").

    The problem arises in that Monty Python are English, and the English tend to laugh at serious subjects. Chesterton noted something along the lines of, if you can't laugh at the serious things, what can you laugh at?

    Since most Americans have never understood satire (or humour for that matter, who else would need a laugh track?) The Life of Brian became a hot potato in the US.

    I'd suggest watching it yourself JP, rather than taking my (or anyone else's) word on it.