Last weekend, I actually watched Saturday Night Live as it aired for the first time in years. I don’t watch a lot ofTV—what’s with these things called commercials? I’ll watch Netflix—but I happened to turn it on at the right time, so I caught the latest in Christian controversy. Because Cristoph Waltz, the Quentin Tarantino darling, was hosting the show, they made a mock movie clip based on Tarantino’s films called “DJesus Uncrossed.”
Jesus comes back from the dead, and now he’s mad. He tried the nice guy approach and now he’s ready to mow people down. I thought the clip was, not ROTFL funny, but at least chuckling funny. (My favorite part was the mock Peter Travers blurb that read: “I never knew how much Jesus used the N— word.”
In any case, what has played out in the days since has been a carefully scripted exchange where the people who were supposed to get offended got offended, and the people who were supposed to pretend like they didn’t understand how people could get offended pretended, and the majority of us watched it, laughed, and then either felt a bit guilty or just forgot about it. There is so much that could be analyzed about the interconnections of religion and culture around this example that it can’t be covered in a book, let alone a post. I use examples like this in my Introduction to Religion class to show how complicated the connections are between religion and “life” that most take for granted are and should remain exclusive.
Religion Dispatches reports that the American Family Association issued a statement regarding the preview. It began with this:
This past weekend, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” aired an extremely violent and gory segment mocking Jesus Christ…just for laughs. And, it’s available now online thanks to Kmart, Sears and J.C.Penney.
Okay, so the clip made light of violence, as movies usually do, and the statement ignores the fact that the majority of Christians watch cinematic or television violence on a fairly regular basis. What was most interesting to me, though, is the fact that by the second sentence, the AFA has criticized, not the people who watched it, not the actors who participated in it, not even NBC, but the companies who facilitate its distribution. (They have taken “Corporations are People” to heart.) The AFA then calls on readers to criticize the companies, not to do anything specific, necessarily, but to let them know Christians are offended. I don’t know if the AFA typically takes this approach, but it seems half-hearted, like they are just following a script. I have no doubt that some actually are offended by this, but the organization seems to be reacting instinctively. Other groups have jumped in, including Muslim organizations.
Religious Dispatches put up a post expressing incredulity that the AFA would actually be offended by something that was so clearly not about Jesus, but about Quentin Tarantino. The author calls the AFA’s response “Jesus Outrage That Totally Missed The Boat.” It seems to me that the two sides represented by these two commentaries could not misunderstand each other more.
Religious Dispatches, at least in this article, doesn’t acknowledge that a spoof where the main character is the founder of a religious tradition is guaranteed to anger some folks, and the fact that it does is not proof of the backwardness of religion, but that people still care about it enough to take the mockery as an attack. The title of the article implies either that religious people are ignorant (they don’t “get it”) or that they’re getting excited for nothing. I’ll admit that it doesn’t bother me at all, and when I was a Christian, it probably would have made me slightly uncomfortable, but there are obviously those whom this does offend. Should they not be offended? Trying to control the discourse by saying it’s not really about Jesus is a pretty weak response, since it would not have been funny without Jesus, the man widely known in American culture as a man of peace, machine gunning down his enemies. Certainly Tarantino’s style was critical too, but not the sole aim of the humor.
On their side, the AFA doesn’t seem to understand that the only reason this clip can succeed is that Christianity has infiltrated culture to such an extent that the symbols that represent it have taken on more significant and vibrant roles than they can control. In other words, Jesus, and a multitude of other Christian symbols, are not just for Christians anymore. Some Christians might take that as a mark of success, taking the “all press is good press” approach. Others will not because they want to control both the message and the medium. If the AFA is taking the stance that American and Christian culture is in moral and spiritual decline, like many conservative and fundamentalist religious groups, they want a tighter reign on representations of the tradition. At this point, that will not be possible without coercion. Consequently, their response is merely a political one, posturing the AFA must do to reaffirm their identity.
So, which approach has a more effective communicative function? Is it better to offend and then justify the offense by suggesting one shouldn’t be offended in the first place? Without the controversial portrait, the humor of the clip is lost. Or would the better approach be to offend and then be unapologetic about it? You’re offended? Too bad. Jesus doesn’t belong to you anymore. What do you think? In any case, what we’ve seen is that the battle takes place more than ever on an economic battlefield, rather than a moral or political one.