Blasphemy in the Cathedral; censorship in the theatre
In England, a cathedral has consented to a screening of a film considered by many Christians to be irreverent and debauched, if not blasphemous. In Northern Ireland, a theatre has cancelled a show which is considered by a few Christians to be irreverent and childish, if not blasphemous. The sacred space is resisting calls to cancel the screening; the secular space has bowed to the sensitivities of Christian politicians.
Wells Cathedral in Somerset will be showing Martin Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ as part of the Bath Film Festival tomorrow, 25th January, at 7:30pm. Despite protests from members of the congregation that the film distorts the gospel and sexualises Christ, the Dean, the Very Reverend John Clarke, is of the view that the notorious sex scenes between Jesus and Mary Magdalene raise importnat questions about Christ's divinity: "In this more sceptical age the church should not hide from controversy and part of the task of the cathedral is to promote an intelligent faith that is capable of attracting men and women to follow in the way of Jesus in the twenty first century," he said.
The Theatre at the Mill in County Antrim has cancelled the Reduced Shakespeare Company's less controversial show The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), which was due to open next week, on 29th January. Some councillors protested that it trivialised Scripture, mocked God and ridiculed Christ. So the theatre has cancelled the show. "In taking this decision, the (Arts Board) wishes to confirm its commitment to deliver on the agreed council's artistic policy to deliver the highest quality performing arts programme, offering a diverse, socially relevant and enriching experience to as many citizens as possible," said a council statement.
It is a bizarre state of affairs when a hallowed historic cathedral - built to glorify God and magnify the name of Jesus - can turn cinema for a night and play host to an offensive interpretation and false representation of the gospel, while a secular theatre is prohibited from performing the superficially profane. Of course, Christians may freely choose not to attend the Cathedral screening, thereby avoiding the taking of offence, but so could they have chosen not to attend the Theatre at the Mill, which is effectively censoring performance out of respect for religious views not held by very may indeed.
The Cathedral Dean and Chapter could have supported a screening of Scorsese's film in a local cinema and then hosted a theological discussion. Would they have been as welcoming of a piece of live theatre which included extreme acts of violence or Jesus having sex? Why do they believe that celluloid mitigates offence?
The Reduced Shakespeare Company say their abridged Bible show is "an affectionate, irreverent roller coaster ride from fig leaves to final judgment as the bad boys of abridgement tackle the great theological questions: Did Adam and Eve have navels? Did Moses really look like Charlton Heston? And why isn’t the word 'phonetic' spelt the way it sounds? Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Atheist or Jedi, you will be tickled by the RSC’s romp through old time religion."
You may make up your own minds:
His Grace recalls the artistic protests surrounding a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in 2005 at the Barbican Theatre. The text, as written, demands the burning of the Qur'an on-stage with quite few cursings addressed to Mohammed. But the offending sections were cut so the audience did not hear Tamburlaine say that the Prophet was "not worthy to be worshipped" or that he "remains in hell". The artistic director, Simon Reade, said that such phrases "would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions".
And so this great text was bowdlerised, essentially on ‘health and safety’ grounds.
England's theatres are not only attuned to the sensitivities of Muslims: in the same year, some 400 members of the Sikh community descended on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to demand the play Behzti (‘dishonour’) be cancelled because it caused them offence. The theatre duly obliged.
But only in Northern Ireland do Christians demand artistic censorship in the secular space, thereby resurrecting the paternal role of the Lord Chamberlain as society's guardian of artistic morality and decency. And only in England do sacred cathedrals host that which is artistically immoral and indecent. Both decisions are utterly wrong, morally amiss, and a cause of great shame.