Once, when we were very young, my brother and I were taken by our parents on holiday to Switzerland, to a little town called Chexbres on the north side of Lake Geneva.
I have very pleasant memories of this far-off Swiss fortnight, except for one thing. In my small dark hotel bedroom there hung a black and white picture of Jesus, in close-up, wearing the crown of thorns. The cruel thorns were drawn in loving detail, as were the drops of blood drawn by them from Christ's forehead. Every day we would go out into the sunshine and mountains and lakes, and every night I would come back into the room and look up at Christ's agonised expression, looming at me, and wonder what lesson I was meant to draw from this cameo of pain and horror.
I asked my mother once what it meant, and she said, Oh, she expected the people who owned the hotel were Catholics, because that was the kind of thing that Catholics liked. I am afraid that that stray remark may well have helped to start me on my lifelong distrust of Catholicism. More importantly, I suppose, it also must have helped to start me on my parallel view of the Crucifixion as a most unpleasant episode which would have been much better avoided, a ghastly moment in one person's life which it would better not to dwell on, least of all glorify.
In this I have the support of the late Bill Hicks, who said he could not understand why Christians went around with a small model of an instrument of torture dangling round their necks. That was what the cross was. A method of putting people to death slowly and agonisingly. As well have a model of a guillotine, or an axe, or a Kalashnikov. Can you imagine, he said, if Christ came back to Earth and found everyone wearing a small effigy round their necks of the thing he had so horribly died on? He'd go - No!- Take that damned thing off ...!
Which brings me to the Ale and Porter Gallery in Bradford-on-Avon, which regularly puts on brilliant little shows which would be sensational if they were in London. This Easter time they have had a festival based on all things made out of chocolate, in which pride of place goes to a life-size crucifixion modelled by artist George Heslop out of chocolate. The gallery, of course, has had a lot of hate mail, and condemnation from the local churches, which is hard to understand when you see the beautifully modelled Christ on the Cross. You would never know, unless you were told, that the material used was not some kind of dark metal. From 10 feet away, five feet even, it looks no different from a thousand hanging Christs in churches up and down the country.
But it is also the first time I have ever seen a meaningful rapprochement between the two completely different views of Easter we have in this country. In the blue corner we have the eggs and Smarties and bunny rabbits. In the red corner, over there, are the death and resurrection of Christ. How on earth do you make a connection between the two? I think making a life-size crucifixion out of chocolate is a brilliant comment on the gap between them.
(If a gallery wanted to make a genuinely controversial and shocking gesture in this field, they could have gone a lot further. They could, for instance, have announced that they were going to crucify a real rabbit.)
The chocolate show is still on all this week in Bradford-on-Avon. I would quite like to return to the subject of blasphemy tomorrow. But I would like to leave you till then with another example of the gulf between the religious and the secular today. There was a time, not long ago, when crucifixes became, for a while, a bit of a trendy accessory. There was a shop in south London which stocked them as fashion items, and the Evening Standard reported that one of their readers had gone in to ask for one.
"Sure," said the assistant, reaching for the crucifixes. "Do you want it with the little man on, or without?"
Even I find that a little shocking. Funny, of course, but shocking too.Reuse content