Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoon Depictions of Sacred Figures

Sebastián Schiavone over at has a post linking to the cartoon depictions of Mohammed that have sparked riots across the Islamic world. He concludes his post with this question:
Would cartoons of Christ in a similar light be as offensive to Christians?
Well, ruling out Jack Chick tracts and those odd little cartoons in Good News for Modern Man, there are quite a few less-than-reverent cartoon depictions of Jesus.

Exhibit A: South Park's Pilot, The Spirit of Christmas (Jesus vs. Santa) pretty much takes the cake:
Jesus arrives in South Park and at the local mall he accuses Santa of blasphemy. Santa challenges him to a fight and the violence between the two quickly escalates. Even Brian Boitano can’t help the boys who’ve found themselves in the middle of this fight.

Swear words were used 26 times total in this episode, out of them, the F-word was use 16 times. 7 kids were killed-including Kenny.
Well. How many people were killed in the riots that followed the showing of that episode? I mean, how many Starbucks were looted. Yah mean that Trey Parker and Matt Stone's cars didn't even get keyed?! What's up with that?

Exhibit B: I find it very interesting that during this weekend of Islamic riots, the Fox television network re-ran it's Simpsons Christmas episode. I don't keep up with the Simpsons these days, but out of curiosity I had Tivo-ed the episode and watched about 15 minutes this morning as I munched cereal and gulped my morning coffee.

In this episode, the Christmas story is re-enacted with the Simpsons as the Holy Family: Homer is Joseph, Marge is Mary, Lisa is the angel Gabriel, and Jesus is portrayed by Bart! The depiction (as far as I saw it) was rather harmless, but as far as depicting the center of your religious beliefs in a cartoon, it did make the Danish cartoons seem small beer.

And the Christian reaction? (Crickets chirping.) The contrast to the Islamic riots is rather breathtaking.

So I guess that the question of whether depictions of Jesus in similar light is offensive is subjective. I don't think that you would have to look very far to find a Christian that would be very offended by these characterizations (especially the South Park episode.)

But the question is not how we feel, it's how we act. I don't watch South Park, and neither do most of my co-religionists. How do we deal with the offense of the program? We change the channel and deny the station that airs that program our eyeballs and so deny it the ad revenues derived from those eyeballs. I don't deny that there are some people who would get violent about these depictions. There are always fringe actors in all belief systems. But Western European/American Christians are devoted to the concept of freedom of religious expression--even expressions that offend them.

Can we finally get past the bogus characterization that Islamic and Christian fundamentalists are indistinguishable?

UPDATE: There seems not to be a clear consensus about the propriety of publishing the Mohammed cartoons. Hugh Hewitt feels that it was indifferent to the sensitivities of the Islamic world, and points to a political cartoon in the US that offend conservative sensibilities. His point: "...don't cheer the vulgar and the stupid."

I really disagree with this view (though I defend to the death his right to say it!). I think that it is at times salubrious to cause some offense. Let me give an example:

The United States Navy is more powerful than all the other navies in the world combined. Periodically, they conduct "freedom of the seas" exercises right off the coasts of hostile, paranoid countries. These exercises often result in loud protests, complaints filed with the United Nations and even weapons fire and death. We don't stop these exercises when they offend another nation’s sense of sovereignty, because we feel that the concept of “freedom of the seas” is so important.

Likewise, western culture is based upon the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints, “the marketplace of ideas.” If we start saying that there are things that cannot be said, that cannot be expressed, our culture is untrue to itself.

Galileo certainly annoyed the Church when he espoused the Copernican model of the solar system. Should he have shut up? Is it time for the scientific community to apologize to the church for "offending its sensebilities?"

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