I have, it may not surprise you to learn, offended a lot of people in my time. I didn't set out to offend them but offend them I did. At least, that's what they said at the time – in phone calls to national offices, in letters to the newspapers, in articles in the newspapers and on radio broadcasts. But we'll come back to that.
One thing is clear, it is getting easier and easier to offend people these days. You don't, as the BBC did, have to broadcast a televised version of Jerry Springer the Opera which depicts Jesus having his genitals fondled by Eve, and includes more instances of the 'f' and 'c' word in the average five minutes than you'd expect to hear from Eminem in a two hour concert.
No, you don't have to go that far at all. You can offend people by asking for white coffee or black coffee. If you're white, sorry, I mean Caucasian, you can offend people by mimicking an Indian, Caribbean, Oriental or German accent – actually you can lose your job for imitating the accent of someone of a different skin colour. I've been doing bad accents since, well, since I first learned English and, being an Americanophile, I still feel pretty safe butchering all kinds of American accents, and I still feel pretty safe butchering Scotch and Irish, though you have to be careful with Welsh because if you're not careful a bad Welsh accent pretty soon starts to sound like a good Pakistani one. And you don't want to be white, I mean Caucasian, and be caught imitating a Pakistani accent because that couldn't possibly be an expression of joy at the different rhythms of speech, idiosyncrasies of gesture and cultural emphases of a different section of God's wondrous creation, no, that's simply racism.
You can, in supersensitive Britain, offend people by putting up Christmas decorations in a town round Christmas. You can offend people by being a golliwog – though if you are, you're probably hiding under a pile of old clothes in a chest in someone's attic, far from the unforgiving eyes of an unforgiving world. Ah, how the world changes – you can wander around Camden in a leather jacket with a death's head on one side, an image of Satan on the other and not draw a blink, but heaven forfend if anyone catches you wearing one of those rather cute little enamel smiling golliwog badges.
You can offend people by dressing up as a Nazi at a fancy dress party where someone has probably gone as Satan, someone as Dracula, someone as the Marquis de Sade, someone as a leather-clad dominatrix and someone as the Prince of Wales. Not to mention quite a few men who have gone as women, and quite a few women who have gone as men. But hey while artists from P G Wodehouse to Mel Brooks to the cast of 'Allo, 'Allo were at liberty to make fun of fascists and Mr Hitler, well, we as a nation have lost our sense of humour.
Of course, Prince Harry made a bad choice. But when you live in a nation that sanctimoniously, self-righteously, and obsessively pores over the nuances of every word and gesture of anyone in the media lens, then you need someone to tell you what this week's taboos are. And you need someone to explain to you that, while there has never been a smidgen of a suggestion that either the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles or Lady Diana have ever been anti-Semitic, Nazi sympathisers or eaten sauerkraut, you, young man, need to remember that 70 years ago your great-grandfather might just have been a little too nice to Mr Hitler. Ah, how the media visits the sins of the fathers onto the sons – unto the seventh generation.
Taking offence is what we are getting better and better at doing. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take offence when we're insulted. Indeed, you can tell a culture by what it affirms and by what it's OK to insult. Once upon a time, and not so long ago in South Africa, it was OK to insult people with dark skin. Once upon a time and not so long ago, in America it was OK to call a full-grown American negro with a wife and three children 'boy'. Today, in Britain it is becoming increasingly clear that it is OK to insult Christians. You didn't have to be watching Jerry Springer the Opera to pick up on that one. I taped it and flicked over to BBC 1 to find Billy Connolly f***ing and blinding away, simulating a sex act and, yes, insulting Christians:
"Where's a f***ing lion when you need one?"
It was comforting to know that the BBC, sensitive to the fact that a large number of their audience would find Jerry Springer the Opera offensive because of the mixture of bad language, sexual deviance and religious themes, should be so careful to ensure that license fee payers had a genuine viewing alternative.
Furthermore, whilst it is apparently beyond the pale for a young, media-naive, apparently not hugely bright prince to turn up at a private fancy dress party spoofing Nazis who murdered Jews 60 years ago, it's perfectly OK for a well-educated, well-travelled, media-savvy, foul-mouthed comedian to call on terrestrial TV for the death of contemporary Christians in a manner that recalls the heinous ways that Romans murdered Christians.
For some decades it certainly seemed appropriate that slightly different rules should apply to the portrayal of Christianity and the depiction of other religions on the media. For one, Christianity was, at least in theory, the religion of the dominant majority. For another, Christianity was not closely identified with any one ethnic group. As a result, an attack on Christianity was not also an attack on white Anglo-Saxons. By contrast, the minority communities tended not to separate race, culture and religion. An attack on Hindu doctrine was and is much more likely to be seen not merely as questioning the credibility of a faith but the value of the ethnic community that adheres to it. That, however, was 20 years ago. Now the landscape may be changing. Today, the issue is not that vicars are portrayed as benign and bumbling idiots but that a comedian can expect a laugh from a mainstream audience with a line like "Where's a f***ing lion when you need one?"
Christians are, it seems to me, becoming weary of what feels like relentless waves of attack not merely on their doctrines, but on Christ and the key historical figures they cherish. It is simply unthinkable that the BBC would have run a programme depicting the prophet Muhammad in diapers having his genitals fondled by Eve, and the reasons why it is unthinkable is because the Muslim community has historically been much less tolerant of the attempted verbal or pictorial vilification or humiliation of Muhammad. No one in the arts world has forgotten that Salman Rushdie spent years hiding for his life because of a couple of sentences in The Satanic Verses. It is clear that there is one rule for Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Jews and quite another for Christians.
This is not all bad.
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not, it seems to me, a deity who is interested in slapping down any whiff of dissent, any whisper of doubt, any cry of 'Where were you'? A relational God listens to the genuine cries of his creatures and seeks to meet them there. Nor indeed is Jesus' own response to mockery uniform. When the Son of God is accused of being in league with Satan because he has cast out demons, he sarcastically inquires how a house that is divided against itself can stand? Jesus, lashed by the whip, pierced by the nails and humiliated on the cross, does not call down a legion of angels and cry 'stop' but rather cries 'Father, forgive.'
Indeed, in the last decade, Christians have, on the whole, been comparatively restrained in their response to provocation. When it came to Jerry Springer the Opera, however, some 47,000 people, probably mostly Christians, called, e-mailed or wrote to the BBC before the broadcast to register their ire at the prospect of the licence fee being used to have a fictitious Jerry Springer tell our Redeemer to 'f*** off.' You can understand why – even if, you didn't necessarily agree that the BBC should have pulled the programme.
The stage version of Jerry Springer the Opera has won numerous awards and much critical acclaim. Its music is compelling enough, its choreography imaginative and its central concept not entirely without merit. The first half stages an episode of the Jerry Springer TV Show in which a variety of emotionally dysfunctional, exhibitionist characters confess to all kinds of adulteries and deviancies, not only to the studio audience but also, for the first time, to the people they love, not to mention the millions watching at home. Overall, it is one long adolescent joke - contrasting the mass culture appeal of dread TV with the high culture genre of an operatic score - think uncensored Eminem lyrics sung to Madame Butterfly. The expletive count was extremely high whoever's method of calculation you accept - over 8,000 or over 400. This was, depending on your sensitivity to that kind of language either entirely overwhelming or just tedious. After all, in the end, the overuse of expletives betrays a lack of creative imagination.
Theoretically, the first half's intent is to expose the Jerry Springer TV show for what it was – a manipulative, corrosive abuse of people's emotions and life experience. But I am as convinced by that as by the putatively serious journalistic intent of that seemingly endless series of exposes of the porn industry that Channel 5 used to fill their schedule with. Satire certainly has its uses. In the 80s you may have needed some help from Ben Elton to figure out where Thatcherism was taking us, but very few of the people scootling along to the theatre to see Jerry Springer the Opera need any help figuring out what it is – they know. And they either quite like it really, or they quite like it really and want to feel superior to it at the same time.
The second half of the Opera is entirely different. Here Jerry drifts into a dream state in which he finds himself on trial for his soul. Characters from the first half are reprised in new roles – the warm-up man becomes Satan, a man in nappies becomes Jesus, and so on. Now, the Jesus in Jerry Springer's dream is the Jesus in Jerry Springer's dream. In other words, this is not the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of the Church but the Jesus of a self-indulgent, morally decadent relativist. And it is in his dream. So, some latitude might be allowed.
Springer's move into the heavenly court does not end with any kind of divine judgement but rather with Jerry Springer himself emerging as the messiah whose teaching can be encapsulated as 'live your life your way – just don't hurt anyone.' It is essentially vacuous, self-indulgent, moral relativism and far from leaving the audience with any nagging doubts as to the vacuous, self-indulgent, moral relativism of the culture they inhabit, the show merely serves to validate it.
Now herein lies a significant issue. If the national broadcaster is going to risk offending a large number of people – more than ten times the number than have ever complained before about any BBC programme – then there should be a good reason. There should be some important political truth that needs to be communicated, or some serious artistic intent that represents a voice that may be beneficial to hear, even if uncomfortable. Sadly, on that score, the Jerry Springer the Opera didn't deliver.
It may be innovative 'entertainment', it may have won awards but it was hardly in the national, political or cultural interest that we see it. If the BBC made a mistake, and I think they did, it was not that they risked the ire of thousands upon thousands of Christians, it was that they risked the ire of thousands upon thousands of Christians for a programme without any significant artistic goal or importance. This was not 'Lady Chatterley's Lover, 'Waiting for Godot', or 'Look Back in Anger', this was schlock opera.
All that said, the rank dismissal of the Son of God with an expletive is not to be taken lightly. Nor is it quite enough to say that the public were warned. The BBC's pre-programme publicity and on-air warnings could certainly not have been clearer. Nevertheless, there is an issue here about the way that national broadcasters select their material. What criteria does it need to fit? What is the role of a national broadcaster in building social cohesion? What is the role of a national broadcaster in fostering values that are likely to lead to a flourishing society? What is the role of a national broadcaster in leading 'taste', not merely following it? It is certainly hard to find anything in Jerry Springer the Opera that would conform to any element of Philippians 4:8.
Importantly, as the EA's David Hilborn pointed out in his article (cf www.ea.org.uk), one of the major issues the BBC ought to face is that they flouted the Broadcasting Standards Commission's guidelines:
"Programme makers should be aware that the casual use of names, words or symbols regarded as sacred by believers can cause unnecessary offence. Moreover, while many people may not themselves be offended by the casual use of holy names as expletives, the majority would not wish to cause offence to
others by this usage."
"Particular offence is given by the linking of the holy names with the strongest swearwords."
Well, the BBC knew that and ignored it anyway.
We shouldn't. Christians have a duty to be salt in a society, to prevent it from rotting. So let us speak out.
Christians have a duty to warn their fellow-citizens of the potential consequences of their actions. So let us speak out.
We may be ignored but we need to be part of the debate. And as we do that we need to be canny. Moshe Rosen, the former head of Jews for Jesus taught me always to find the opportunity for the Gospel. Don't worry about defending God, don't worry about defending yourself, find the opportunity for the Gospel. And ask the question, 'How can God use this for his glory?'
I think it is a helpful testimony that those who felt strongly about the issue should protest outside the BBC. I think it's a helpful testimony that the BBC should know that 47,000 people love a living Lord and that they will not simply accept the sullying of his name to an audience of 1.8 million people. (Songs of Praise, as I recall, attracts at least three times that number.) But I don't think it is helpful to post senior BBC officials' home telephone numbers on a website and encourage people to call them at home. That immediately cedes the moral high-ground to the opposition. It immediately makes them the victims of the peace and therefore engages the sympathy of the public. And it takes the media spotlight off the issue – the portrayal of Christ.
Each of us of course has to look for the opportunity for the Gospel in our own context. Libby Purves, writing in The Times, ended her article on the subject thus:
'And let every Christian say, as every Christian should: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and nothing you can say changes that. So peace be with you, brother."'
Live he does. Live he does – the glorious, holy, pure, resplendent, loving King of the Universe, the Lord of All, my redeemer and my friend. Go tell it on the mountain, out in the streets and everywhere.
- What strategies do you have for dealing with swearing and blasphemy in social and work contexts?
- What stops you from registering praise or concern about the content of media output?
- Do you feel that it is getting easier or harder to be a Christian in society today?
- Ask some teenagers in your church about the way Christians are viewed in their school?
- What can we learn from the way Jesus dealt with mockery and criticism about how to deal with mockery and criticism?