Depicting the sacred

Jan 20

When I was around 15 or 16, in grade 11 or 12, there was a student club called SWAP – Students With A Purpose.  They weren’t an orienteering club or a theatre club or a chess club. They were Christians. As far as I could tell, their ‘purpose’ was to meet in a small room. That’s all they did, as far as I could see. I imagined that they might talk about God stuff, or maybe even pray – since they all looked a little sheepish when they came out of that little room.

That little room later became the room me and a few mates would meet up in before classes started because we always got there insanely early via a regional bus service.

One morning I was very surprised and highly amused to discover that the SWAP students had left an ‘advertisement’ written on the whiteboard – ‘all welcome’ to come to a SWAP car rally.

At that stage in my life I probably would’ve described myself as an agnostic. I hadn’t attended church since I was a small child going to Sunday school, and I certainly wasn’t familiar with the idea of ‘youth group’, so it was quite simply beyond me to comprehend what believing in God had to do with car rallies. So I picked up the whiteboard marker and filled the remaining space on the whiteboard with a picture of God at the wheel of a Torana, cutaway so that along with his long hair and beard blowing back in the wind, you could see his long while robe flowing down to his ankles, and his sandalled foot pressing down hard on the accelerator, and I captioned it with “God will be there!”

I did it with a sense of mischief and a little bit of pride (I’m no artist but it wasn’t a bad cartoon – I remember being particularly pleased with the toenail of his big toe poking out of the sandals) and the assumption that it would help the SWAPpers see the absurdity of what I thought was their first foray into contacting the ‘normal’ students with a completely unrelated event.

So, when the next time they came out of that room, one of girls who I knew well enough to just say “hello” to, pointedly turned her eyes away from me with something like a mixture of contempt and pity, I was genuinely flummoxed, and quite hurt. Probably largely because I was a hormonal teenager and being cold-shouldered by any girl was enough to make my stomach twist, but also because I simply didn’t get it.

Fast forward ten years, and I did get it. I had become a Christian myself and could entirely relate to her initial reaction. Fast forward again, and having since become an ex-Christian, I feel like I have a bit of an insight – from various angles – that I can offer in regard to the reaction to the depictions of the Prophet and so forth.

Firstly let me say that I’m not attempting to excuse anything. In discussions about this matter I’ve been accused of blaming the law-abiding cartoonists and making excuses for the terrorists. The act of a human killing a human sickens me. The bare fact that it’s happening somewhere in the world while I’m lying in bed at night, haunts me. I don’t offer this as an excuse for killing, but as an insight.

I can, of course, only speak from the perspective of Christianity, but I would assume some aspects of my experience are culturally transferable (though certainly not all).

Oddly enough, believing in a deity involves a picture of reality that includes that deity. In the Abramic religions, the deity is central to one’s understanding of a number of important aspects of reality. For the ‘true believers’, God is an individual with whom one can communicate.

There are parts of God’s personality that we understand, and perhaps relate to, and parts that we don’t. Just like, probably, your spouse’s personality, and your friends’ personalities. Indeed, you can spend so much time talking to God that you can feel he is a friend – he’s like a therapist with whom you examine yourself in discussion, examining your motives, your responses, your concerns and fears. You develop a bond through this open self-examination. That your picture of God may be entirely your own making has no bearing over the fact that you develop an emotional attachment to him, in the same way that a person can become very emotionally attached to a person who doesn’t care for them at all (indeed I’d suggest that psychologically, once you believe in God, it’s more difficult to convince yourself that a person who evidently – in the eyes of others – doesn’t care for you, actually loves you, than it is to convince yourself that you’re loved unconditionally by God) and in the same way that an invented picture of God can still have real effects on your personality (someone close to me – an atheist – once told me early into my Christian experience to “keep doing whatever it is you’re doing, because you used to be an absolute @^$!, and now you’re actually a reasonably nice person”). And if you hear God being insulted, you may well feel slighted on his behalf – as you would if you heard your spouse being insulted, or your friend.

The other thing with Christianity is that – in more modern times at least – you’re encouraged to take it personally. The logic of God’s demand for the sacrificial atonement of Jesus for the world is actually reducible to the situation that it’s actually Jesus for you; that is, if you were the only person alive, he still would’ve died for you. So it becomes a personal thing.

With that in mind, I can relate to how my cartoon caused offence. For one, my intended meaning – what the hell has a car rally got to do with God? – was probably lost on the SWAP group; they probably just assumed I was generally taking the piss out of their beliefs. Secondly, in that understanding, the whole drawing of God would’ve been seen as an insult to the very notion of God – taking his image in vain, so to speak, in the worst way: depicting a deity to take the piss out of the idea of that deity.

I’m speculating, of course – I never asked why that girl looked so upset (that would’ve involved talking to a girl) – but in hindsight and having been on both sides of the fence (and the offence), it seems like a reasonable speculation. Arguably it shouldn’t have caused offence at all, but to my mind, that’s beside the point. Because if I really wanted to engage with the SWAPpers, I should have asked the question straight out – why are you doing a car rally instead of doing God stuff in your little room?  If I wanted to challenge their beliefs, I should’ve quietly asked them something along the lines of why Mark’s gospel has Jesus crucified on the day of the Passover, while John’s has Jesus crucified on the day before, on the Day of Preparation for the Passover.

In my experience, satire doesn’t do anything to change beliefs. Mocking another belief system is an “in-joke” at the expense of others, which only polarises people further. If we had some hard evidence – e.g. from psychology, sociology, or history – that satire is effective in defusing inflammatory debates or smoothing difficult terrain of cultural difference, I could perhaps stomach the use of satire as a tool in the discourse. Instead, it seems to me that history clearly shows that satire has been used to polarise, dehumanise, and “other”-ise its targets, as well as function as propaganda more generally, in times of, and preceding, conflict. That’s not to say that there’s not good, clever satire out there, but expecting the message – let alone the humour – to translate across cultural divides is a big ask. Nor am I necessarily saying that we shouldn’t have the right to satirise, just that if we want a positive outcome, there have to be better ways of going about it. If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, then satire is surely the lowest (most doomed-to-fail) form of diplomacy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *