Friday, March 01, 2013

The 'Djesus Uncrossed' flipout

So were you offended by “Djesus Uncrossed,” Saturday Night Live's riff on Quentin Tarantino's latest film?

I wasn't, but judging by the reaction of the nation's culture warriors, I should have been. Once the sketch aired last weekend, the Internet erupted with the predictable cries of foul. Fox News ran an opinion piece by Todd Starnes melodramatically claiming “NBC Declares War on Christians.” Michael Farris, chancellor of of Patrick Henry College called it the “worst possible attack on the person and character of Jesus Christ.” Seriously?

For its part, the American Family Association, in its official statement, essentially consigned those involved with the sketch to the flames of hell.

Something is missing amid all this outrage: a sense of perspective.

Or, to paraphrase, "SNL's depiction of Jesus as a revengeful man was so blasphemously inaccurate, that he's going to show them that they were exactly right."“Saturday Night Live” hasn't stayed on the air the past 40 years for its biblical scholarship. It is a variety show built around short comedy sketches. Comedy works on its ability to surprise us, and the strength of its surprise often lies in the unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, especially if the link breaks a taboo.

That is why we laugh at a faux commercial for edible Pampers. This is why it was funny to listen to a Eddie Murphy and a reggae band sing about killing white people, at an American Legion fund-raiser. The images are too bizarre, too contradictory, too exaggerated. They make no sense. So we laugh.

In the case of “Djesus Uncrossed,” the writers at Saturday Night Live link the excessive and gratuitous violence of Quentin Tarantino's movies – “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds” specifically – to the figure of Jesus. The joke requires viewers the recognize the jarring disconnect between the violence of “Djesus Uncrossed” and the essential pacifism of Jesus in the gospels.

Quentin Tarantino's movies routinely make a spectacle of violence. Compare that to Jesus, who went peacefully when he was arrested, rebuked his disciples when they raised arms, and told his followers “Do not resist an evil person.” Pairing Jesus with Tarantino's love of violence isn't blasphemous; it's humorous. It works because we know that Jesus isn't the kind to cut someone's head in half.

Put simply: The joke would fail if the writers didn't count on us to respect Jesus as a peaceful man. Where's the blasphemy in that?

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live used the likeness of Jesus in a manner that doesn't match the preapproved evangelical manner? That's a narrow attitude to take. Christianity has provided the framework for Western thought for nearly 1,700 years. In America its influence predates the founding of the Republic.

With that sort of legacy, it's only natural to use the language and the symbols of Christianity to communicate and to critique Western thought, civilization and art.

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live portrayed Jesus specifically in a violent manner? Perhaps it is. Either way, I think we have deeper problems than “Djesus Uncrossed.”

Years ago, some people complained that Jesus too often was being portrayed in popular culture as a hippie sort of flower child, powerless and weak, the sort of guy who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach. The Jesus pushed by the Right has the opposite problem. The Right too often has used Jesus to stoke up people's anger, to justify invading Iraq and other Muslim countries, to marginalize gays and lesbians, and even to deny women access to contraceptives. This Jesus is no milquetoast; he's the guy who's going to kick sand in your face at the beach.

The difference is that Saturday Night Live portrayed the vengeful Jesus as a joke, while the Right is completely serious about theirs. Who's committing blasphemy now?

About the only stereotype missing from Harry Hanukkah is that he wasn't a lawyer.
Starnes asks rhetorically why Saturday Night Live never pokes fun at Judaism – I guess he never saw“Harry Hanukkah Saves Christmas” – and never tells jokes about Islam. I'd wager it's not because they're afraid of offending Muslim viewers, nor because they hold a special regard for Islam, as much as that it's rude to pick on the little guy.

Because the truth is, in America at least, Islam remains a minority religion, with only about 2.6 million adherents in a nation of 300 million people. For all the complaints of the Religious Right that Christianity in America is under siege, Christianity remains the dominant narrative of our culture. Christmas is a federal holiday, not Eid al-Fitr. Everyone in America knows what Easter celebrates; I doubt you'll find one Christian in 10 who knows what Shavuot is, or what its relationship is to the Day of Pentecost.

The Religious Right loves to play the persecution card. The message it has been hammering for years is pretty simple: Be afraid. There's a war on Christianity, and we're losing. Liberals are attacking God. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy, are all under attack.

Faith should lead us to reach out to other people and to forge connections with them. If the most it inspires someone to do, is to tell you to be afraid, do yourself a favor.

Tune them out. Their attitude is the most offensive thing of all.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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