Christianity and Blasphemy

The Right to Slander God?

"Yes, one has a right to caricature God" – so read the headlines of France Soir, one of the first European newspapers to follow the Danish cue and print the controversial caricatures. But this right is rather new, writes Ann Kathrin-Gässlein

​​The influence of the Enlightenment led to changes in the notion of blasphemy in Europe. "Religious defamation" replaced the concept of blasphemy – which had been an accusation often launched at religious or philosophical reformists. By granting the right to freedom of speech, the state was trying to protect the right to objectively criticize religious institutions and thus refused to punish or exclude those accused of blasphemy. Legal protection was aimed more at the religious feelings of individuals.

The modern cases of slandering God that the world has grappled with in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, have mostly been related to artists who have allegedly injured the feelings of others. Usually the chosen form of their statements are understood to be as reproachful as the content.

The case of George Grosz

The "grandfather" of blasphemous art is perhaps the caricaturist George Grosz. His case became one of the greatest blasphemy-related trials in German history. As a twenty-one year old, Grosz took part in the First World War.

George Groez' Jesus with a gas mask (image: Greatwar.nl)
George Groez' Jesus with a gas mask

​​Still under the shock of his experiences, he began to make drawings of people that illustrated the various forms of social violence: drunkards, people vomiting, men swearing at the moon with a clenched fist, murderers who played cards on top of a box in which their victim's corpse is visible…

In 1928 Grosz published a drawing in a very simple, expressive style with the title "Christ with gas mask." This theme had long occupied him, and he was trying to imagine how Jesus could be portrayed as a person of his times.

He chose to represent the crucified Jesus as a victim of the times, wearing boots and a gas mask, a cross in his hand. At the margin of the drawing is written, "Shut up and keep serving."

The blasphemy trial resulted when the image was published. The decision on the case came in three parts: first a fine, then exoneration, and finally the annulment of the exoneration. A final decision was not reached because Grosz fled to the United States in 1933. His works were exhibited by the National Socialists as "degenerate art."

Modern-day blasphemy

In recent years, in Christian theology the view has been asserted that it is better not to protest blasphemous representations because this only draws attention to them. But George Grosz has had many like-minded successors who have spurred conflict, right up to the present day. Here are just a few examples:

  • 1979: In the film "The Life of Brian" by the British comedian collective Monty Python, Jesus' doppelganger Brian sings cheerful tunes from the cross. The film is banned in Scotland.
  • 1983: In Herbert Achternbusch's film "The Ghost," Jesus is portrayed as a waiter. The filmmaker is sued for religious defamation.
  • 1988: American director Martin Scorcese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" has Jesus come down from the cross to marry Maria Magdalena. Worldwide protests follow the film's premiere, and bomb threats are received.
  • 1998: Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson represents Jesus as a gay AIDS patient. At the exhibition opening of "Ecce homo," demonstrators throw stones at her.
  • 1998: The French photographer Bettina Rheims depicts Jesus on the cover of her book I.N.R.I. as a crucified, bare-breasted woman. The courts decide that the book cannot be openly displayed in book stores.
  • 1999: The caricaturist Walter Moers sketches Jesus as a "Kleines Arschloch" ("little arsehole"), his trademark comic figure. He is sued for religious defamation.
  • 2001: Large protests are launched at the Cologne premiere of "Corpus Christi" by US author Terence McNally. The plays portrays Jesus and his disciples as drunken homosexuals.
  • 2001: Graphic artist Gerhard Haderer shows Jesus as a pot smoking, latter day hippie in his book "The Life of Jesus." The Austrian Bishop Schönborn protests, and an outpour of angry letters and lynch threats are received by the publisher.
  • 2005: "Jerry Springer: The Opera" portrays a gay Jesus dancing around the stage in diapers. The opera runs for months in London's Westend and is broadcast by the BBC. The lobby group Christian Voice collects 55,000 complaints against the BBC and peaceful protests follow.

    Why are caricatures considered so blasphemous?

    Visual media seem generally to have a greater effect than speech or the written word because they aim at the imagination and emotions. The autonomy of art allows for many possible avenues for blasphemous representations.

    Cover I.N.R.I (photo: Amazon.de)
    French photographer Bettina Rheims depicts Jesus on the cover of her book I.N.R.I. as a crucified, bare-breasted woman

    ​​The early Christian church forbid all visual art because of its proximity to idolatry. And the Lutherans' influence elicited a decree on images at the Council of Trent, thereby attempting to curb the excesses of Catholic art in the churches. Well into the eighteenth century there were trials aimed against images that defied dogma.

    Blasphemous caricatures that meet with heavy protest often resort to alienation as a means. Alienation, developed as an artistic method by Bertold Brecht, flouts convention and questions that which seems self-evident. Special forms of alienation that often play a role in cases of blasphemy are irony, travesty, or trivialization. Combining incongruous elements is also a preferred method.

    George Grosz, for example, provoked with the combination of a traditional representation of the crucifix and the representation of a contemporary soldier; the recent caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad have given him the attributes of a terrorist and a suicide bomber. The conventional foil is equipped with a novel element, which has a disturbing effect.

    The motivation of the "blasphemers"

    In many cases, alienation as a method is intended to bring a reflective insight and a rethinking of conventional content. The artist George Grosz seemed to understand his works as a form of self-expression. He did not have the intention of slandering.

    During his trial, Grosz said:

    "The deeper version of this image is… a simple, crucified creature that is, in principle, life-giving. I am personally not a pacifist, but as a human being one always has deep compassion for the people who are run into the ground, who are sacrificed again and again in hecatomb fashion. Nonetheless, there will always be people who have sympathy for this martyred creature. I even find this beautiful. That is what is represented here."

    The nineteenth-century image of Jesus was no longer adequate for Grosz given his experiences in the war. Theologically he is aiming for a new orientation in Christian belief.

    In the case of the often-quoted Satanic Verses, the author attempted to formulate a radical critique of religion and to emphasize the grave dangers of fundamentalism and fanaticism that in his opinion are lurking in every religion. A statement by the author, which is also a quote from Satanic Verses, shows this quite clearly:

    "In India today front lines are being drawn…Secular against religious, light against darkness. Consider carefully which side you are on."

    But in the initial publication of the Muhammad caricatures, it seems that the issue was not one or the other of above. As the cultural editor of the Jyllands Posten, Flemming Rose, testified, he wanted to probe "how far self-censorship goes among the Danish public." This was rather a test by way of example, a kind of showing of force, and not a theological debate about a religious issue.

    Ann Kathrin Gässlein

    © Qantara.de 2006

    Translated from the German by Christina White

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