Visions of blasphemy

Christians don't need special protection - they need to grow up, says Sara Maitland
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The Independent Online
On Monday the European Court of Human Rights upheld the legality of the British Board of Film Classification's refusal to give a certificate to a 15-minute video film, Visions of Ecstasy, because it was likely to be found blasphemous, that is criminal. Please note: no court of law has found Visions of Ecstasy criminal; no actual complaint has been brought against it; no one has claimed that it is pornographic, tending to deprave, or dangerous to youth (or anyone else). Only that it might "offend" a particular group of people - Christians; that is those (including me) who claim as their founder a first-century Jew who was executed for blasphemy. The blasphemy laws in this country aim to protect Anglicans - and technically only Anglicans - from having their God or the articles of their faith mocked.

Now as it happens I have seen Visions of Ecstasy. When the director was first refused a video certificate, he appealed. I was invited to appear as a witness at the appeal: partly because I had recently published a book on the saga of Rushdie's Satanic Verses (The Rushdie Dossier, Fourth Estate, edited by Appignanesi and Maitland) and partly because I am a Christian. Frankly, it is a pretty lightweight piece of work. Teresa of Avila was a 16th-century Spanish nun who experienced and wrote extensively about her mystical visions. No one questions that she expressed herself in unusual images and language, much of which any interpreter since Freud could scarcely avoid finding highly eroticised. I myself have written on sado-masochistic imagery in her work. St Teresa in Ecstasy, the famous baroque statue by Bernini, indicates this is not a new notion. The video takes up where Bernini left off: an actress plays Teresa gradually removing her habit, masturbating and finally fondling a statue of the crucified Jesus. This is accompanied by many bells and candles and rococo church ornaments, and a flagellation scene. Now the film certainly does not illuminate the life and work of a remarkable theologian - Teresa is one of only two women who have been declared a Doctor of the RC Church - and you may well find it pretty tacky. But the Christmas displays now being put up are tacky and fail to illuminate the doctrine of the Incarnation - and no one refuses to license them.

Teresa of Avila was not an Anglican and her visions are not articles or formularies of anybody's faith. The video does not mock Teresa, or God. So it is not at all clear to me why this odd little work should be judged blasphemous in the first place. Neither Monty Python's Life of Brian, which is certainly mocking, nor Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, which gives Jesus himself explicit fantasies, was judged blasphemous. Artistic merit has no bearing on blasphemy, unlike obscenity.

The timing is interesting. The original refusal to grant a certificate to this video came soon after the Rushdie furore, when outraged Muslims complained that they were not protected equally or justly under British law. The Home Secretary assured them that the blasphemy laws, which could not be operated on their behalf, would not in future be used by the government on behalf of Christians either. The government, it turns out, does not need to.

Christians are not a community at particular risk in this country, so there is no possible justification for privileging them at law in this way. Unlike Muslims we have our own special schools, a monarch to defend our faith, automatic seats in Parliament, and an omnipotent, almighty deity. Do we really also want these outdated laws to protect our excessively delicate sensibilities? Because it is our sensibilities that we are worrying about here; it is simply not theologically imaginable that God is going to be hurt by a 15-minute video.

At the appeal the expert witnesses were not asked to give statements, only to respond to questioning. The whole experience was mind-numbing. One of the questions I was asked was whether I thought any Christians anywhere would be offended by this video. The answer was, and is, that of course they would. Some Christians would be offended by any representation of a young woman caressing her own breasts. I know Christians who are offended by shower gel adverts that show this; I know Christians who are offended by women breast-feeding their babies, for heaven's sake. Christians, as we saw last week over the gay celebration in Southwark Cathedral, are very good at being offended.

That is not the point: the point is why does the offendedness of Christians "matter" more in this country than the offendedness of anyone else? There are two possible answers: one is that, despite all claims to multiculturalism and democratic tolerance, our society values the Christian's sensibilities more highly than anyone else's - we are cultural, and probably racist, bigots, a bit like the Ayatollah Khomeini. The other is that Christianity is particularly unstable and pathetic and needs to be treated like a sickly infant. On the whole, it is the more conservative section of Christianity that appears to want to maintain these discriminatory rules: yet they are exactly the people who most readily protest about the so-called "nanny state". There is a distinct whiff of hypocrisy here. My answer at the appeal should have been that I would have to question the faith of any Christian who wanted the secular state to privilege their sensibilities over the freedoms of anyone else.

The stupid thing is that if Visions of Ecstasy had just been given a quiet 18 certificate in the first place, no one likely to be offended would ever have heard of it. No, wait; the truly stupid thing is that a 20th-century, multicultural society has a blasphemy law of this kind at all. We should repeal it immediately and allow poor little Christians to grow up at last.

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