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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