Was Rowan Atkinson Blasphemous?

On Saturday night there was a comedy show on ITV, celebrating the 60th birthday of Prince Charles. In it Rowan Atkinson performed his famous "Wedding at Cana" sketch. Here it is (following the Basil / Manuel skit) for those who haven’t seen it:

Now I for one was in pieces, but others apparently weren’t. In particular, Stephen Green of Christian Voice has just sent round this email:

Rowan Atkinson mocks Christ at Prince’s Birthday Show

Rowan Atkinson mocked the Bible, Jesus Christ, His miracle at Cana and His crucifixion on the Prince of Wales’ 60th birthday show at 8.35pm on Saturday 15th November 2008 which was broadcast on ITV as ‘We are most amused’.
Atkinson came on dressed as a vicar and began to read from John Chapter 2. After half a verse he began to blaspheme the word of God and mock the Lord and His miracles as conjuring tricks. Since the presentation did not change, it would not have been clear to someone unfamiliar with the scriptures what was from the Bible and what was not. Atkinson finished up by saying: ‘He did go unto Jerusalem and he did his full act … they absolutely crucified him.’ (A reference to a common showbiz saying when an act has gone down badly.)
All this was in front of the heir to the throne, who, if the Lord wills, will be granted the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ when he is crowned. Atkinson is a friend of the Prince of Wales, and he thinks he can do as he likes. The camera did not record the Prince’s reaction.
That comedy can be clean, respectful and side-splittingly funny was shown earlier in the evening by Bill Bailey in a brilliant musical piece of solo stand-up comedy.
Atkinson has rightly defended political satire and his biography quotes him as saying: ‘The freedom to criticize ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.’
But his sketch was not political satire, nor did it criticise any idea or belief of Christianity. It was just insulting, mocking, crass and disrespectful. Civilised, decent people do not behave like that. Plainly Atkinson thinks there is not enough disrespect in our society already today.

I don’t think Stephen understands that in order to make really good jokes from Biblical material, you have to actually really know your Bible. For example, here’s Eddie Izzard with an absolutely brilliant piece of comedy based around Noah’s Flood. As you watch, see how he carefully engages with concepts of original sin and redemption – this is not mocking the Genesis narrative, this is very clever theological comment:

This is my reply to Stephen:

I’m sorry Stephen, but you’re simply wrong on this. Atkinson did *not* mock Christ. He used a familiar Bible passage to great comedic effect. There was no attempt to blaspheme Jesus, but rather he drew on the Scriptures to deliver a brilliant piece of comedy. In fact, when you start examining Rowan’s other sketches set in churches or using vicars, you start to see that he is a man who has a good working knowledge of Scripture and is able, like the best satirists, to draw from a familiar source without actually defaming it. In fact, I would argue that Atkinson’s ending in this sketch actually shows a healthy respect for the Bible, for he understands the exact sequence of events that led to the crucifixion, and his careful chronological reference to them shows not a man who is deliberately attempting to mock Christ but rather an artist who understands the material he is referencing and is being deferral to it, not derogatory towards it.

There is a clear difference between Rowan’s sketch in front of the PoW and the more lurid "art" that we see in the media. For example, Gilbert and George’s "Was Jesus Heterosexual" was an explicit attempt to pass scorn upon Jesus, and is worthy of condemnation (and easily falls within the definition of blasphemy). But even when we don’t like something it’s worth looking at what the artist was attempting to achieve. For example Serrano’s "Piss Christ" might cause you offence, but actually if it is a statement of how society treats Jesus it is in reality a clever piece to awaken us all to the real impact of our language (i.e. those who use "Jesus Christ" as an expletive) – here’s Sister Wendy on engaging with that piece – http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=L9pAKdkJh-Y.

Stephen, I really think that finding fault with Rowan Atkinson is simply going to make you unpopular with the mainstream of evangelical opinion which understands the clear difference between intent to offend and intent to amuse.

What do you think?

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  • http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/ David Keen

    Agree with you Peter, except that I didn’t find Atkinson that funny – I’m sure I’ve heard that particular routine before, or something very much like it. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but ‘it would be unclear what was from the Bible and what was not’ ??????!!

    The thing which struck me most about the whole show was the absence of bad language (I didn’t watch the 2nd half, past my bedtime), which after all the recent rumpus over Ross and Brand was very refreshing.

    Steven Green needs to canvas a bit of opinion before he presumes to be the ‘Christian Voice’ on behalf of the rest of us.

  • Pete Broadbent

    Stephen Green needs to get out more, and stop pretending that he speaks authentically for Christians in the UK!

  • Martin Biddiscombe

    Though I agree that Stephen Green’s approach does not sit comfortably, given the 21st century creed “tolerate everything”, I do think his basic point is right. Rowan Atkinson’s sketch was clever, yes, but it was also mocking both of Christ’s actions and motives.

    Knowing the Bible is not  the same as showing it respect. Having a basic grasp of the chronology of Jesus’ life is not the same as showing it deference. As James wrote [2:19], “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.”

    Of course, the climax of the sketch was the poking fun at the crucifixion and the reason for it. In whatever way you choose to dress it up, this is blasphemy. Whether Rowan’s intent was to offend or to amuse is not the point. He has taken the most important event to have ever happened — the heart of God’s plan to deal with sin and bring reconciliation between man and God — and said [at the very minimum], “this is something we don’t need to take seriously.” And, if we believe him, if we are led, by clever word-play and parody, to laugh at Christ on the cross, then Satan’s work has been done.

  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

    Martin,

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I do profoundly disagree. The comedic tradition is to take a well known event and to derive humour from it. The humour works only because one is aware of how things *actually* should be. The joke about “they crucified him” is only *really* funny if you know that the cross is actually a really serious place. It is the contrast between Atkinson’s magic trick Jesus and the real Jesus who saves us that gives the sketch the poinancy that it has.

    I’ve had two conversations so far this week with heathens on the back of that sketch, and in each case it was a fantastic springboard to asking “so what do you think Jesus *was* doing on the cross?”

  • http://nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com Byron Smith

    Yes, I was about to make the same point. It is only when you know the difference between Jesus in the Gospels and Jesus the magic conjuror that there is any possibility of humour. I felt that Atkinson actually demonstrated just how different Jesus was from a slight-of-hand illusionist. I wonder how many people went home to (re-?)read John 2 and had another chuckle over the sketch (as they noted both the similarities and differences that made it amusing).

  • http://mikes4tea.blogspot.com/ Mike Thomas

    I confess I wasn’t entirely comfortable with Atkinson’s sketch but then that is just me perhaps. The problem is that of how many might not have the sophistication to appeciate the finer points of what Atkinson achieved in his comedy and I appreciate how some might not ‘get it’ in the same way as you suggest.

    All that said, I know Stephen and, fine Christian man that he is, I just wish he would stop and think about what he is doing. As has already been suggested, it is condescending in the extreme to think that viewers haven’t the wit to differentiate between what the Bible says and what Atkinson has added for comic effect. His emails are in the same vein, as he insists on instructing his constituents at some length on how to forward emails anonymously as though we are too dense to know how and too lacking in sense to know when it might be appropriate.

    Sadly, he has set himself up as the conscience of the nation. I just wish he didn’t do so in the name of the rest of us. David has suggested that Stephen should canvas opinion before giving forth. My own experience is that even when you let him know directly what you feel on an issue he is not as good a listener as he wishes the rest of us would be.

  • Kate Wharton

    I didn’t actually see the programme & was about to watch the clip to see for myself but it says “this clip is no longer available” – is this a technical problem or have YouTube removed it because of protests?? (Which would be fairly ironic given how many genuinely & grossly offensive things are allowed to remain for much longer!)

  • http://nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com Byron Smith

    YouTube very rarely remove content due to moral objections. Far more likely is that there was a copyright issue.

    Yes, having now checked, it was an infringement of ITV’s copyright.

  • Martin Biddiscombe

    Peter,

    I disagree that the humour depends on understanding that the cross was a really serious place. So long as you know that Jesus was physically crucified, then that’s all that matters. And that’s the problem. The joke trivialises what was happening at Calvary.

    I’m not sure a sketch that is played for laughs throughout can ever be rightly described as poignant (profoundly moving). It may be that some jokes will lead some people to think more deeply about the issues touched on or parodied. But,

    most people will probably just laugh at the joke and not go on to the deep thinking
    there is a spectrum from a parody that gets people thinking to out-and-out ridicule; on some subjects you can safely travel right along that spectrum without risking offense or  ‘going too far'; on other subjects, the limit of what’s acceptable is a much narrower range.

    I’d say the range, and what’s acceptable for some topics, could be expressed like this:
    parody <————————————-> ridicule
    <——————– politics ———————->
    <——————– soap operas ——————->
    <———– organised religion ————->
    <– Jesus Christ  –>
    <>
     ^ = Jesus’ death on the cross

    And Rowan’s sketch fell somewhere about
    here ——————>

    To address your last point: “I’ve had two conversations so far this week with heathens on the back of that sketch, and in each case it was a fantastic springboard to asking “so what do you think Jesus *was* doing on the cross?””…

    Well, it’s fantastic that you’ve been able to talk about that. But, does the end justify the means? You may be thinking of Paul’s comment to the Philippians “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” However, that does not mean that the people stirring up trouble for Paul were approved by God for what they were doing, but rather that God is able to take what is meant for harm and turn it to good. It would still be infinitely better if the harm had not been done in the first place though.

    If we are ready to share our faith, God does not need to wait for Rowan Atkinson to ridicule the cross before he’ll give us an opportunity to have a Gospel-focused conversation!

  • Keith Foster

    Hi Folks – I must admit that I really do like Rowan Atkinson – who for me usually provides good, light hearted comedy. As a Christian, watching this however, with my oldest daughter, herself a believer -neither of us were laughing at any time throughout this sketch. I am now a Pastor, but also spent 24 years in Industry, with 9 years of that in the Navy – putting up with allsorts of comments about God, Jesus, the Bible etc – and for sure, we can use these as good opportunities and platforms for discussion and debate. However, with a TV programme (where communication is only transmitted one way – from them to us) – this sort of skit, I feel is pretty tasteless. I can only imagine the uproar should the sketch have been about Islam – I dare say the show producers would not have allowed it. Christianity is often seen as a ‘soft touch’ – with Christians, very often, given no voice to ‘complain’ – so on that point – thanks for putting up this blog, this was the only one I could find on the matter.

    My ultimate question (and point) is that what WE actually think of that particular skit, at the end of the day, does not really matter. Rather, it is what God Himself thinks that should really be the question. My gut feeling, is that a sketch that has Jesus at the centre, with comedic references to His miraculous activity and ultimately the Crucifixion – would not be something that would either honour or please Him.

  • SW

    Really you’d have thought that, being Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Atkinson would have known better…

  • grace wells

    I think the sketch with Rowan Atkinson was the most discusting attempt of comedy I have ever seen, skitting mocking and making light of christ and his crucifixtion and in front of Royalty, it is a good thing the Queen wasn’t there, yes can you imagine if it was Mohammed they were skitting, you can’t even name a teddy bear after him or the muslims want you dead but yet we a so called Christian nation just sit back in silence when it comes to Christ, but you know my God is a big God and one that does actually exist so let us see what happens to Mr Atkinson career for my God will not be mocked. He is just an example of a Country that has no respect for anything of anyone. Would the public have been so kind if Jonathan Ross and his foul counterpart were mocking Christ and not Andrew Sachs? PC gone mad. Lets just get rid of this kind of entertainment and the people who make it. We have had great comedy over the years and have never been reduced to this level-anything goes

  • http://www.theophiliacs.com Tony Hunt

    Grace you make conflicting statements.  First you complain that if you name a “teddy bear” after Mohammed “they will want you dead.”  But then you say that we need to react strongly to jokes like Mr.Atkinson’s.  So it’s bad when Muslims overreact but ok when Christians do?  It sure seems to me to say “Let’s just get rid of this kind of entertainment and the people who make it” is certainly ridiculous.

  • Keith Foster

    I do think Tony has a good point. Christians must indeed react in a way that reflects the character of God. Verbally expressing what may or may not honour Him is appropriate – without the need for expressions of a desire to see those who have dishonoured Him, come to physical grief. Scriptures clearly tell us that we need to communicate the heartbeat of God on these and many other issues – but we must leave the ultimate judgement to Him. I equally understand the frustration of Grace – Christians are deemed a soft touch in many ways – and with derogatory sketches about such as Islam, being ‘off limits’ – it appears unfair. Thankfully, the ultimate judgement is The Lord’s job – and we can be sure that ‘..the Judge of the earth will do right’.

  • Becky H.

    I'm an American Christian who normally feels qualmish when I hear something even remotely blasphemous, and I don't sense that in this sketch (of course, I'm a huge Atkinson fan but I've been disappointed by my favorites before). In fact, I believe that he was trying to get the point across that while the general public accepted Jesus and his teachings and miracles, the Sanhedrin most absolutely did not. Christ made people happy, but then was treated as a criminal for doing so. The way he says the part at the end sounds like he is trying to make a serious point, even though he uses a play on words. I think that some are so uncomfortable in their own faith, that they can't admit that something like this is not meant to mock. I view it as no more than a form of art, and quite clever at that. Let the Lord be my judge for finding it amusing as well as thought provoking. I'd love to hear from Mr. Atkinson what his intention really was, behind this sketch!

    • Becky H.

      Let me please add that I in no way mean to belittle Jesus' works as merely crowd-pleasers, but He did heal and counsel to help other's feel better. The things He said and did with the authority that He displayed caused the ridiculous uproar among the "Holy Men." All Jesus was doing with His "full act" was helping others and proving His deity; but the scribes and pharisees didn't find it "amusing" so they crucified him. I think some are misunderstanding Atkinson's "full act" statement to mean the crucifixion and resurrection (as though it were merely a trick). His full act was showing that He is the Messiah, and it is no trick! :)

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Thanks for commenting Becky. FWIW, I think I'm broadly in agreement with you.

  • Sam Hargreaves

    Atkinson's sketch is not a parody of this story, more a humourous retelling. I found it hilarious. Peter Ould's comments prove that he was not bothered by this sketch, so I don't see why we should be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xuedebox Cate Brunner

    I have never thought that Atkinson likes sport cars, and that he even doesnt resemble Mr. Bean. He turned out to be different person for me after that biography – http://www.fampeople.com/cat-rowan-atkinson

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