During Holy Week (April 9-15) we will be reminded of what happened when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. As recorded in Mark's Gospel, Jesus was taken before the chief priests and the Jewish court of the Sanhedrin and interrogated. We read:
"But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?' 'I am,' said Jesus. 'And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.' The high priest tore his clothes. 'Why do we need any more witnesses?' he asked. You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?' They all condemned him as worthy of death" (Mark 14.61-64).
Jesus was crucified on a charge of "blasphemy". But to charge Jesus with "blasphemy" was the worst of all blasphemies (see Mark 3.28-29)!
Blasphemy came into the headlines again in the modern period in 1987 with Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses. The novel was offensive to Muslims and earned him a fatwa and the threat of murder from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. With the pressure off, Salman Rushdie has reflected on, and written about, the issues involved. As a defiant secular humanist from a Muslim background he follows John Stuart Mill and cites Socrates and Christ as men accused of blasphemy who were founders of Western traditions. He says: "We can say, therefore, that blasphemy and heresy, far from being the greatest evils, are methods by which human thought has made its most vital advances." Rushdie, however, fails to see that blasphemy can also be a "regression".
It is this blasphemous "pushing the frontiers" that is planned for Newcastle upon Tyne before the next Coloured Supplement is due. For unless the show is cancelled, Jerry Springer the Opera, the "award-winning blasphemy musical" (to quote its director, Stewart Lee), will have been staged at the Theatre Royal from Monday 1 May 2006 to Saturday 6 May 2006.
Many have now seen the show because of its being broadcast in January 2005 on BBC2. And it is blasphemous. This is the verdict of theatre critics. Then in the House of Commons David Taylor, the Labour MP, said: "Anyone who saw that programme will have been dismayed by its unremittingly juvenile, offensive and blasphemous content." Lord Rees-Mogg, former Editor of The Times and Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council from 1989-1994, also said it was blasphemous: "I do not doubt that Jerry Springer, The Opera breaches the existing law on blasphemy ... At present the BBC is afraid of Islam, but feels completely free to mock Christianity." And referring to the literally hundreds upon hundreds of utterances of the "f" word, Rees-Mogg said: "'F. you all' is the agenda of nihilism. The idea that there is no wrong and no right implies moral anarchy, or moral dementia." He was referring to one of the final lyrics entitled the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." This includes the lines, "Energy is pure delight, nothing is wrong and nothing is right."
The Broader Issues and Legality
Lord Rees-Mogg, however, said that "this is not primarily an issue of legality ... the question is, I think, a broader one." So what is at stake in "blasphemy"? I have written before at what has been called a "loss of outrage" in the post-modern West. All societies make a distinction between the "sacred" and the "profane" or what is taboo and what is common. What do people feel is serious or unimportant? What do they show reverence or respect for? And what do they treat with indifference? When you ask those questions in the light of Jerry Springer the Opera you can see that a number of people are wanting to invert the traditional answers the majority have given, and I believe still give, in Britain to those questions. In the words of Isaiah they "call evil good and good evil" (5.20). Undoubtedly today that inversion is not for an abstract desire for "freedom of speech" but from an aggressive strategy for moral change. Like Rushdie, blasphemy is seen by a subversive minority as a "method of advance". It does not, however, proceed by civilized rational debate but more by power and force that is acquired by significant public funding. What else is "pushing the frontiers"?
There is, it needs to be noted, a distinction between our current understanding of "blasphemy" and "heresy". Heresy has to do with the "matter" of what is said. Blasphemy has to do with the "manner" in which it is said. The classical definition of blasphemy, quoted in the last successful blasphemy prosecution in 1977, is as follows: "every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the doctrines are advocated and not the substance of the doctrine themselves." A very recent definition of the English common law offence of blasphemy was given by Professor D.J.Feldman to the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Religious Offences in England and Wales that reported in 2003. He said that from the decided cases it would seem that blasphemy is committed "... by anyone who makes public words, pictures or conduct whereby doctrines, beliefs, institutions, or sacred objects and rituals of the Church of England by law established are denied or scurrilously vilified or there is objectively contumelious, violent or ribald conduct or abuse directed towards the sacred subject in question, likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Church England believers in the community." I submit that the general body of Church of England believers, if they saw the video of Jerry Springer the Opera, would be shocked and outraged.
The Christian Institute's Summary
In the words of the distinguished American commentator, Richard Neuhaus, when talking about an offensive blasphemous production in New York, "my apologies for bringing such swill to your attention." But these are very important issues. There is now available a clear little leaflet produced by The Christian Institute. It is under the heading, "Jerry Springer the Opera is a prejudiced, anti-Christian hate show"; and it is a fair summary of the characterization in the third Act. It correctly reports that ...
"Jesus Christ is introduced to the show as, 'the hypocrite son of the fascist tyrant on high - Jesus of Nazareth'. He is presented as a reflection of a character from earlier in the show who likes to wear nappies and gets sexual pleasure from defecating in them. Christ declares himself to be 'a bit gay'. He hits a woman and uses foul language. He replies to Satan's accusations by saying, 'I'm Jesus, son of Man, son of Mary, son of God, so do not f*** with me'. He says to Eve, 'You're weeping now, but you didn't give a t*** when I was crying out on the cross.' At the end of the show Jerry Springer turns to Jesus and blasphemously says, 'grow up, for Christ's sake, and put some f****** clothes on.'"
Then God the Father "is presented as a reflection of an over-weight bisexual from earlier in the show. God the Father sings 'It ain't easy being me' and asks Jerry Springer, 'sit in heaven beside me, hold my hand and guide me, 'cos it ain't easy being me'. At the end of the show Jerry turns to God the Father and tells him that he has to learn that he won't have a shoulder to cry on."
The virgin Mary "enters the show with the chorus singing 'raped by God'. Mary accuses Jesus of dying young and not being there for her. A song then ensues where Mary sings to Jesus 'Where were you when the condom split?'" As for Satan, he "demands 'a f****** apology' from God for throwing him out of Heaven and orders Jerry Springer to obtain it for him. Satan bellows at Jesus over the course of several minutes nothing but 'f*** you'." Then Eve "thrusts a hand under Jesus' loin cloth and fondles him as she sings about the Garden of Eden. A fight then breaks out between Jesus and Eve. Jesus strikes Eve across the face. The chorus sings 'What the f***?' Jerry Springer then intervenes and reprimands Jesus for hitting a woman."
Let me make some observations. First, there will be those who say, with some reason, that those making the running in opposition to Jerry Springer the Opera have been rather shrill and on occasion unwise. Secondly, there will be those who say, with probably less reason, that actually the law cannot stop such a production, so live and let live. But even if Stewart Lee and the Theatre Royal have a legal right to offend Christians, they do not have a moral right to do so. Hate speech - and this is "hate speech" against Christians - is hate speech. And to quote the American Catholic League, "it doesn't become something less if dressed up in artistic clothing." There is an assumption that elegance and sophistication justifies anything. Yes, the music in Jerry Springer is musically good. But mouthing the "f" word hundreds of times to the strains of high opera doesn't alter the words nor prevent the cumulative effect of the performance being blasphemous. Yes, there is a moral message and legitimacy in "sending up" the real Jerry Springer and his dreadful "reality" TV show. But the whole is like a cup of coffee. Much of it may be good, but even a tiny drop of poison in the cup can kill you. In Jerry Springer the Opera, however, the poison is significantly more than a tiny drop.
There must be free speech. But our democratic tradition of basic free speech began in 1694 when Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act and prepublication censorship came to an end. Macaulay described that as a greater contribution to liberty and civilization than either the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights. But publications were still subject to the laws of the land regarding sedition, blasphemy, obscenity and libel. Ideas were free. What was wanted was a free market for ideas and rational, civilized discourse (not for blasphemy or obscenity - the two often go together).
There, indeed, are still taboos regarding what people think important or sacred in modern Britain. A minority, however, have decided unilaterally to destroy a number of those taboos. Interestingly the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Religious Offences in 2003 said this:
"In the recent census, 72 percent of the returns declared themselves to be part of the Christian tradition and identity. While not regular churchgoers, many still turn to the Christian churches at key times in the Christian year, and at important moments in their own life cycle, as well as occasions of local or national thanksgiving or tragedy. They are, in overwhelming majority, people who are tolerant of the practice of other religions and would wish to see that tolerance and protection reflected in our law and practice. They believe also in the hard-won heritage of free speech in our society. Many could feel a real sense of loss, which might easily be turned to anger, if the delicate balance of religious and secular, the 'sacred canopy' of our nation, were to be destroyed ... It is worth noting, too, that most Muslim groups, while preferring that the law be extended to cover all faiths, are opposed to the repeal of the law of blasphemy. The Muslim Council of Britain, for example, said that 'abolishing the law on blasphemy would mean so far as other faiths are concerned what we call negative equalization'; one of the proforma letters we received said that 'from a Muslim perspective, it is better for the law to protect at least one religious denomination from blasphemy, the Anglican Church, than no religion at all.' The Board of Deputies of British Jews believes that to extend the law to other faiths would 'raise inherent contradictions' and that 'it should be retained as it is'."
The Select Committee advised that the law be neither repealed nor extended, but remain as it is. So the law of blasphemy still stands with its reference to the Church of England.
It is recognised that western democracies – at least in Britain and America - are not pluralistic in an ultimate sense. Rather they have a subordinate pluralism, which our blasphemy law reflects. It can be argued this is due to the Christian tradition. That gives a clear distinction, from the teaching of Jesus, between God and Caesar. So it is distinct from Islam where fundamentalist Islam denies Caesar, and distinct from secular humanism which denies God. But the mainstream Christian political tradition has learnt the lessons of history. It understands the doctrine of Hell as meaning that God allows free choice. So the Christian political tradition allows non-Christian faiths in ways that Islam does not, nor does secular humanism in its "true believing form" which is atheism (witness the 20th century Stalinist and Marxist regimes). This genuinely liberal Christian tradition now has a strong belief that the State may not enforce beliefs. That also contrasts with much of Islam and, indeed, secular humanism which more and more is becoming the religion or "faith" of the media, the educational establishment and the therapeutic services.
The "f" Word
The publicly subsidized production of Jerry Springer the Opera seems to be part of what some have called a "culture war". As Christians in a democracy, and therefore, with a measure of authority ourselves, surely we should pray and take peaceful action to preserve the good order of society and oppose such initiatives. We are to pray for those "in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2.2). The "opera" is certainly neither godly nor holy! Yes, blasphemy is a relative notion. In the West it is a moderate notion. In Islam, as we saw with the recent Danish "Cartoons", blasphemy is something extreme and results in death - as it did with the Jewish Sanhedrin at the time of Christ. For Christians to tolerate blasphemy, it can be still argued (as it used to be), is to tolerate a destabilization of society. Some will think that extreme. Let me explain.
There is a performative use of language. This is seen in the obscenity, or indecency, such as was evident in the first Act of Jerry Springer the Opera where there is an ad nauseam use of the "f" word. But what is really so wrong with the "f" word? Why was there such an uproar when Kenneth Tynan uttered it for the first time on the BBC in 1965 during a live debate? Why did it cause such an uproar at the BBC and in Parliament? Why did it cut short Tynan's TV career? Why should it be shocking to say publicly "Brian f***ed Janet," but not shocking to say, "Brian made love to Janet?" What is wrong with the public use of an old 16th century word of unknown derivation?
It is the same question that can be asked with regard to some other changes of language. Peter Berger, the sociologist, once explained what is happening by reference to the fascist leader, Mussolini and the fact that in some European languages, there is a distinction between "you" singular, and "you" plural.
"In modern Italian the intimate form of address is tu, while more distant individuals are addressed as lei (which happens to be the third person plural). Sometime in the 1930s Mussolini made a speech in which he castigated the use of lei as an effete, indeed effeminate mode of language. The purpose of the Fascist revolution, he said, was to restore vigour and virility to the Italian people. The good Fascist was direct in language as in action. The good Fascist, therefore, did not say lei; instead, he said voi (the second person plural). Now, from a philological or semantic point of view, this was sheer nonsense. The use of lei had never struck anyone as effete or effeminate; it was, quite simply, standard Italian. But, needless to say, the situation changed dramatically after Mussolini's speech. From then on, everyone became highly conscious of the matter ... The use of lei became a sign of reactionary, perhaps even subversive, attitudes. The use of voi, preferably in a self-righteous and highly audible manner, was evidence that the speaker (or writer) was a Fascist in good standing. Indeed, it became the verbal equivalent of the Fascist salute. Put simply what before Mussolini's pronouncement had been an apolitical and unreflective element of the common language now forced itself on everyone's consciousness as a highly political symbol."
The fact is that language is not just an instrumental vehicle of communication between human beings; it also has "symbolic freight". To use the "f" word is not just to communicate an action but to buy into a sexual revolution and ideology that says modern society needs little sexual restraint. This undoubtedly has resulted in misery for millions in terms of the traumas of marriage breakdowns, children suffering and society at large being damaged. Tynan actually helped generate and motor that revolution by unilaterally breaking a taboo and abusing, in front of millions, the privilege of a TV studio.
The same is true of Jerry Springer the Opera. To allow the blasphemy is not to be seen as allowing free speech but allowing people to use a public facility - The Theatre Royal - seemingly to promote a culture of blasphemous religious hatred. Newcastle City Council is the owner of the Theatre Royal. In the last year for which figures are available, the theatre received, as I understand it, over £650,000 of council tax-payers' money. Of the 12 Trustees of the theatre, 7 are Newcastle City Councillors. I suspect many of them do not realize what the show is like. Already Tesco's and Sainsbury's have refused to sell the video of the show. Surely, we should pray and work to encourage the City Council to follow the lead of Tesco's and Sainsbury's and seek the cancellation of the production. What is particularly shocking is that the Theatre Royal is encouraging school children to attend Jerry Springer the Opera. It is offering a concession for "children under 18 in full-time education". This is in spite of the fact that the DVD has an "18" rating.
Christian people around the country have been protesting against this country-wide tour. As a result in Plymouth the theatre was reported 70 percent empty. In York a performance had to be cancelled. In Leicester the local radio station refused to do hospitality evenings for the show and the ticket sales were disappointing. Not surprisingly, on 18 March The Daily Telegraph reported Jon Thoday of Avalon Productions as saying that "the show [which attracted a record of more than 30,000 complaints when it was broadcast by BBC2] is playing to half-empty houses and is expected to make a loss of £300,000."
So, please pray and take appropriate action, e.g. write appropriate letters, for the show to be cancelled in Newcastle (I know some people before writing would need to see the full text of the opera).