The First Offensive Artist

It is a bad time to be an artist. In recent times, a cartoonist has been arrested for doodling, an essay has been banned from colleges, a Bangladeshi writer lives in exile and a renowned Indian artist died in a country not his own.

Artists are in the dock for their expression. But the fallout swings from the tragic to the trite. A US Ambassador has been killed and all religion has been charged with his murder.

Last night, in CNN-IBN’s interview with Salman Rushdie, one atheist told another that he was tired of religion demanding special privileges. It was judgment without a jury.

For the record, I think Salman Rushdie has been dealt with unfairly. But the debate between free speech and fundamentalist religious belief is incomplete. It is missing people who value their own religion so much they will defend the right of their critics to speak freely, because they are convinced that their faith can stand up to scrutiny.

To be fair, God is more offensive than Salman Rushdie. If the Bible wasn’t the Bible, it would be targeted by angry religious protesters for its sexually explicit poetry and its brutally honest biographies.

Lot’s daughters get him drunk in a cave, sleep with him and bear his children. Jacob’s wages for his work are women. He marries two sisters and a couple of servants. Judah’s daughter-in-law pretends to be a prostitute and sleeps with him. David murders a man to cover up an affair with his wife. The Song of Solomon walks a thin line between art and obscenity.

God speaks through the prophets to His people, with graphic sexual imagery. His speech is intended to shock the sensibilities of people indifferent to injustice. Throughout the Bible, it is astonishing how writers are given the freedom to express themselves—under divine inspiration—in ways that would seem offensive to contemporary readers. But it remains revered because it is true.

True spirituality inspires free speech. But free speech has a responsibility to be truthful. The Da Vinci Code wasn’t offensive because it hinted that Christ had taken a lover. It was offensive because it wasn’t true.

As it turns out, truth is more offensive than insult. In a strange sense, Jesus Himself violated the rules of free speech in Jerusalem. He confronted hypocrisy and subverted authorities. He spoke the truth openly and it was taken to be offensive. Religious forces pulled every political string in their power to have him executed. By that standard, artists in exile seem to have fared better than Him.

God is not insecure. Genuine faith shouldn’t be intimidated by its critics, even if they resort to the obscene and the irreverent. As a Christian, I will defend your God-given right to disagree with me.

But if critics have the right to speak against false religion, shouldn’t true religion have the right to speak for itself? But the champions of free speech appear to be calling for a fatwa on religious belief in the public sphere. Believe what you will, but keep it in the closet. Leave it at home when you come to the city square.

The Bible has never been a book for children. It is written for grown-ups who are expected to read it like grown-ups. But there’s a childishness to the way it is read by its adversaries. They seem to miss its obvious affinity with the arts and its deep concern with reasonable thinking.

The Bible is a friend to the artist who wants to tell the truth, even if it is disturbing. Its ears are open to listen to the complaints of honest critics. It is committed to being truthful, even if it is offensive. For that reason, it is a first rate work of art and God remains the first offensive artist. Everyone else is a follower in His offensive footsteps.

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Image Credit: dreamwhile

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