Blasphemy requires an artist and an accuser.
By S. Brent Plate
Madonna is on the cross again. Though if you were one of the millions with nothing better to do on the eve of Thanksgiving than tune into NBC, you missed it. Under pressure from Donald Wildmon’s “American Family Association” and others from the Christian Right, NBC caved into censorship demands and edited out a scene in which Madonna is raised on stage on a mirrored disco cross. Through the scene she wears a crown of thorns, along with her microphone headset as she sings her 1980s song “Live to Tell.” (Thanks to the good folks at AFA, you can still watch the crucifixion scene, as they have kindly given us a YouTube feed of what exactly it is they wanted censored.)
The controversy began in late summer when Madonna’s “Confessions” tour played across Europe. The raising of the cross also raised a few eyebrows, and word got out to religious authorities. Madonna’s sins are at least ecumenical, having garnered charges of blasphemy and sacrilege from Protestant leaders in Germany, Catholic leaders in Italy, and Orthodox leaders in Russia. A few Muslim and Jewish voices chimed in as well. A Vatican cardinal, speaking with the approval of the Pope, called the disco cross scene, “a blasphemous challenge to the faith” and a “profanation of the cross.”
All that, plus some home-grown pressure from the Christian Right, made NBC a bit leery about showing the lifting high of the Madonna. Tight black leather, OK. A stripper-style pole dance on an over-sized horse saddle, OK. Half-naked, svelte sweaty bodies, marked with Stars of David and Crescent Moon, OK. Just no mock Roman executions. One almost wants to give credit to the many NBC affiliates around the country that had some problems with the overall package and decided simply not to show the tour special at all.
It is of course not the first time Madonna has faced a modern Inquisition. Her 1989 video for “Like a Prayer” was deemed blasphemous by some Catholic authorities. And a few years later, her simulated masturbation scene during performances of “Like a Virgin” resulted in the Pope calling for a boycott of the tour. But all this leads to the question: What is it that makes for blasphemy?
The word blasphemy, in its most literal form, taken from its Greek roots, means “evil speech.” Since that is a bit ambiguous, common definitions such as “contemptuous speech about God,” “defamation of the divine” or “treason against God,” have all been used. Fifty years ago, Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter appended a lengthy list of definitions for the terms “sacrilegious” and “blasphemy” to a concurring opinion statement of the Supreme Court regarding a censorship case. Culled from dozens of English dictionaries stretching back to the seventeenth century, his point was to prove that neither term had a consistent, objective meaning that would allow legal conclusions to be drawn from them. Definitions ranged from “stealing from the church” to “profaning things devoted to God,” from “language tending to the dishonor of God” to “attribute to God that which is contrary to his nature.”
As Justice Frankfurter intimates, definitions of blasphemy are slippery, subjective, and susceptible to manipulation by power-seekers. The opinion statement by the U.S. Supreme Court argued that censorship is questionable on grounds of sacrilege or blasphemy since “the censor is set adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies.” In other words, blasphemy and sacrilege cannot be pinned down in a universal, timeless manner, but are prone to endless changes in religious meaning and through power mongering.
For it is in the accusing itself, and in the greater environment in which the charges are made, that we find the profound power of blasphemy. It is one of those terms that gained its lasting power not through semantic stability, but through its instability, its endless manipulability. Blasphemy’s history is intertwined with other terms such as sacrilege and heresy, most directly, but also with the obscene, impious, idolatrous, offensive, subversive, and taboo, as well as its condemnation in the forms of iconoclasm, censorship, and excommunication.
Christianity’s own version of blasphemy stems, as with most of its theo-logic, from Judaism. If looking through an encyclopedia, library, or the Internet, one of the first places the researcher of blasphemy is pointed is to the trial of Jesus, implied by the Gospels as being a blasphemy trial against Jesus. In the Christian retelling, this trial is turned on its head and becomes a rhetorical indictment against the “blasphemous” Sanhedrin who refused to acknowledge the Messianic nature of Jesus. To clarify: In some of the Gospel accounts (Mark and Matthew most explicitly) Jesus is accused of blasphemy. In the retelling of the trial, as canonized in the Christian New Testament, those who accused Jesus are implied to be the real blasphemers since within the narrative structure they did not recognize the divinity of the Christ.
Jesus Christ certainly must hold the title as the “Most Blasphemed Against Holy Figure,” especially in the modern West. Images of Jesus charged as blasphemous in the last hundred years have included great political statements by George Grosz which led to the artist’s indictment of blasphemy in Germany in the 1920s; Kamera Skura and Kunst-Fu’s joint Czech-Slovak entry in the 2003 Venice Bienniale Superstart, which consists of a cruciform statue of Jesus Christ moved from the cross to the gymnasium. A couple years before the Muhammad cartoon controversy, Gerhard Haderer’s little comic book “The Life of Jesus” sold hundreds of thousands of copies throughout Europe but also landed the artist a six-month prison sentence from the Orthodox-inspired Greek government (later repealed); and Gilbert and George’s recent exhibition in London, “Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?” prompted British conservative Minister of Parliament Ann Widdecombe to label the pictures, “blasphemous in the extreme, as [Gilbert and George] will find out when finally they stand before the Son of God.” Perhaps Jesus is an easy target since Christianity, to put it bluntly, is the religion that made blasphemy popular. Because of Christianity’s global prominence and its ability to infiltrate many of the world’s cultures, Christian attitudes toward blasphemy have had a long lasting influence on other religious traditions, as well as the political and legal structures of contemporary nations.
In many ways, blasphemy is a modern term. The rise of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century was key to the revival of the term blasphemy, after it had fallen from common Christian usage since around the sixth century. Roman Catholics had legal control over the crime of “heresy” and decided who should be accused, why they should be accused, and what their punishment would be. Among others, they made this accusation against Luther, Calvin, and their followers. Thus, the Reformers had to come up with their own attack, and Luther particularly used blasphemy as the term to throw back at the Catholics, as well as the Arianists, Anabaptists, Jews, and Muslims, or simply anyone who disagreed with Luther himself. During the Catholic-Protestant wars (in speech as well as sword) many people were burned at the stake for blasphemy and heresy. It was not until the eighteenth century that execution was phased out as the punishment for blasphemy across Europe and North America. Laws against blasphemy remain on the books in many Western nations and throughout the United States, even though court cases rarely transpire today.
Within a broader cultural-religious history, Madonna’s glittery cruciform performance is really nothing new, nor even very provocative; just one more version of a cross, one more rendition of someone on it. Beside that, the authorities have little to say, except a few pronouncements that make the news. Blasphemy has become a newsworthy term, but little else.
No work of art is blasphemous in and of itself; it must be deemed so from within religious and/or political power structures, whether small or large scale, and there are many examples in which an image has appeared without comment in one setting only to explode with controversy in another. In short: blasphemy needs both an artist and an accuser. The context for accusation includes everything from religious dogmatic assertions to media coverage to political posturing made by authorities seeking to appear as defenders of social decorum and morality. Every society has its taboos, and the concept of blasphemy allows us to look to the forbidden symbols and activities of our past, in order to enquire about our own present list of taboos. In so doing we come up against the structures and strictures of our current culture, enabling a certain charting of the permissible and forbidden that defines contemporary life.
S. Brent Plate, a Revealer contributing editor, is currently Visiting Fellow at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University and and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. Further ideas on the topic of blasphemy can be found in his recently published Blasphemy: Art that Offends (Black Dog Publishing).