Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Another final thought

Delighted to see Jerry Springer The Opera has managed a reprieve, after the insidious campaign against it. Christian Voice's latest, charming, argument is that those staging the play will "sacrifice community cohesion".

It's not exactly the tolerant, forgiving attitude, is it? Those who object to the play don't have to go see it, nor do they have to like it, and this campaign of hatred is missing some pretty fundamental points.

The portrayal of Jesus and his family in the opera is not meant to be literal or true. There are explicit warnings to that effect within the opera itself. Instead, it's a fevered imagining by (the character of) Jerry Springer, reflecting his own preoccupations, fears and guilt. It's tasteless and over-the-top, but that’s the point: Springer’s treatment of ordinary people and their problems is just as despicable.

In Act One, Springer is seen cynically exploiting the real misery and crises of his guests, mistreating his staff, and refusing to accept any sort of responsibility for what happens on his show. This is a bloke who even gives airtime to the Klan.

Act Two is not, then, putting Jesus on trial; it's Springer's own soul that's at stake. The Jesus and his family we see are clearly all distorted versions of guests we met in Act One, their sordid, tawdry problems warped to Biblical, operatic proportions.

So what’s worse, a guest “entertaining” a baying crowd by declaring his infidelities to his heartbroken wife, or a twisted dream of Jesus claiming to be “a bit gay”?

The conclusion Springer reaches through his absurdist dream seems to be that he can’t shirk responsibility for his guests, that he can’t stand to one side, passing objective comment as the fighting ensues. He has to get his hands dirty. Forced to justify himself, forced to broker some kind of peace between the warring deities, Springer is left to ask some pretty serious moral questions about our – all of our – obligations to one another.

As a morality play, then, I’d argue Jerry Springer The Opera actually serves to bolster community cohesion. Instead of the pat moral summary at the end of (the real) television show, the opera poses complex questions… ones we have to think about for ourselves. If it’s not the “uplifting morality” story that some Christians might be used to, surely it deserves merit for appealing to exactly those people who wouldn’t go near anything smacking of self-congratulatory moral worth.

Jesus himself taught morality by telling stories that questioned people’s values. The parables are so well-known that it’s worth remembering how controversial they were in their time. Imagine a modern version of “The Good Samaritan”, where it’s not Pharisees and the rich who stroll past the man in need, it’s our own moral guardians and public leaders. And rather than help coming from a Samaritan – the sworn enemy of the people Jesus was telling his stories to – what would we feel if the “good” man was (considering criticism of the opera) gay? Or a Nazi, or a terrorist?

(Actually, typing that last bit made me think of how ordinary people become terrorists – is it just that they’re shown a concern by extreme groups that’s otherwise lacking in “civil” society?)

I don’t have a problem with mocking religion – it’s healthy to question authority. Yes, I’d rather the mocking was done well, with intelligence and wit, but like Life of Brian before it, Jerry Springer The Opera achieves that, and puts forward shrewd insights in amongst all the funny stuff. For which it should be celebrated.

And though some people will object to their gods getting teased, I’ve no time for any deity not man enough to take it.

1 comment:

Philip said...

Preach it, brother.

The one thing I'd question in that (with the caveat that I haven't actually seen JS:TO, although obviously I've heard a lot about it) is whether mocking christianity has anything to do with "questioning authority" any more. In the U.S., certainly, but in secular Britain? I'd say these days faith has a ceremonial role in governing the country, at the very most.

Which is to say that I can see why some thin-skinned christians feel embattled and beseiged when the secular culture is coming up with this sort of thing. I think, though, that this betrays a fundamental refusal to engage with the material, and the idea of interest groups calling for any kind of free expression to be banned is just vile.

Er, that's what I reckon.