Christians Should Get Comfortable With Blasphemy

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Remember “Piss Christ”? Unveiled in a New York gallery in 1987, the now-infamous photograph depicts a plastic crucifix submerged in a vat of artist Andres Serrano’s very own home-brewed urine. In 1989, thanks to some highly questionable funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, “Piss Christ” went mainstream, shocking Americans. Since then, the 60-by-40-inch print has been protested, decried, defunded, and vandalized, even inspiring death threats to the art gallery proprietors who dare to show it.

To many people, Serrano’s photo is little more than a late-80’s echo—yesterday’s outrage, so to speak. But last week, in the wake of the radical Islamist rampage against the staffers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the legacy of “Piss Christ,” oddly enough, rose again—and, in what might be a perfectly appropriate reversal of the Easter story, was quickly buried thereafter.

Catching heat for its refusal to reprint the “blasphemous” Mohammad images that inspired the Charlie Hebdo murders, the Associated Press attempted to defend itself last week by arguing that its policy “for years” has been to “refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney, noting the absurdity of this statement, pointed out that not only was “Piss Christ” readily available for viewing on the AP website, but that the ever-plucky agency actually offered prints of it for sale. (Hey, journalists have to make a living too.)

Hypocrisy exposed, the AP quickly yanked the photo from its site, leaving nothing but an error message in its wake. This was paired with an updated and rather tortured explanation of the AP’s evolving and “even-handed” editorial policy. “Even-handed,” in case you’re wondering, appears to be code for “pretty darn arbitrary, except when we’re concerned someone might just murder us all.”

I don’t know about you, but I mourn for “Piss Christ”—and Christians should be the first to call for its return. Sure, the photo is distasteful. It’s indisputably tacky. It’s clearly offensive to huge numbers of Christians. But it is also, in the end, a piece of paper with a picture on it. That’s it. I’m fairly confident that the Lord and Creator of the Universe looks down at such nonsense, rolls his eyes, and moves on with His day.   

Just last week, my kindergarten-age son spent about 15 minutes earnestly drawing on a giant piece of paper, hunched over, intensely focused. “Wow, how wonderful!” you might think. “Such concentration! He’s really learning his craft!” Then, with a flourish, he unveiled his masterpiece, desperately trying not to snicker. It was a crayon stick figure, very poorly construed, accompanied by the following crazed-looking text: “Big man. Big undies. BIG POO.”

This, in my household, is what we call “being provocative.” Six-year-olds do it. Miley Cyrus does it. Acclaimed contemporary artists who make millions upon millions of dollars do it. And in this life, more often than not, the best thing to do is simply ignore—or pooh-pooh, if you’ll pardon the pun—the provocation.

One reason to do so is practical. The ultimate irony of the Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, of course, is this: In an attempt to eliminate “blasphemous” content, the murderers may have helped revive a once-struggling and almost bankrupt publication, elevating it to almost-mythic status. Before the attacks, Charlie reportedly published 60,000 copies, selling 30,000. Print numbers of this week’s post-attack issue—featuring, of course, yet another image of “The Prophet”—may reach up to 3 million.

The second and more important reason to live and let live, however, is philosophical. It boils down into one simple sentence: The freedom to worship what we want is inextricably linked to the freedom to blaspheme what we want. This is not a new or novel concept. It’s the very bedrock of the ideals of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire onward to America’s founding fathers. What is new, however, is the fact that Christians, long slammed as “intolerant” and “close-minded,” might now be among the leading candidates to take up its banner.

Many Muslims have spoken out against the Charlie Hebdo massacres, but it seems unlikely that a major Islamic movement, given the constraints of that particular faith, will soon go all out and celebrate offensive, “blasphemous” speech. Meanwhile, in a rather curious development, secularists—once the champions of free speech the world over—seem to be increasingly retreating into fragile, hypersensitive shells. In many areas of modern life, in fact, aggressive secularists look more fundamentalist than ever, issuing speech codes, howling over various “offenses” and “microaggressions,” and panicking over college guest speakers.

Years after it burst onto the scene, thanks to its bizarre government funding—which was the real problem with “Piss Christ” in the first place—a simple photo, 60-by-40, remains a lightning rod. Do Christians need to embrace “Piss Christ” and declare it great art? Of course not. You may, like me, prefer a bold new avant-garde work, crafted by a young and up-and-coming artist, courageously titled “Big Man. Big Undies. Big Poo.”

That said, should Christians protest the burial of “Piss Christ”? I certainly think so. Should we have the cultural confidence to celebrate and support the right to any and all offensive free speech in America, even if it’s aiming straight at us? Absolutely. Our faith is strong enough to handle it. Our freedom to worship depends on it.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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