Jesus was a man of many foreskins. So starts one of the Middle Ages’ dirtiest jokes, in which a theologian remarks on the sheer number of claimed relics of “the Holy Prepuce” (the punchline: he must have been very well-endowed).
People, even Christians, have always found humour and absurdity in divinity, so there’s little new in comedian Reuben Kaye’s off-colour one-liner on Network Ten’s The Project. Far more noteworthy is the lameness of his joke-telling. “Nailed” as a double-entendre. Cringe. I heard that one back in high school.
Comedian Reuben Kaye on The Project.Credit:Network Ten
To be really offensive about Christianity you have to be far more creative these days. Remember Popetown, a 2005 adult sitcom billed as “Father Ted meets South Park”? It imagined the pope as a petulant child voiced by Ruby Wax. In one episode, a look-alike Jewish comedian played by Jackie Mason replaces him, all Prince and Pauper. Oy vey.
Or South Park itself, just as irreverent, after creator Matt Stone declared “open season” on Jesus. It had him swear and cuss and kill, with such scenes that attracted the usual handwringing from professional offence merchants and latter-day Mary Whitehouses.
Serious and committed Christians, however, ought to recognise a spoonful of satire is no threat to faith or salvation. A self-confident religion takes criticism and doesn’t rush to demand retribution against its heretics.
As the BBC’s supremely cynical send-up of PR agents, Absolute Power, put it in an episode which imagines a Tony Blair type competing to become archbishop of Canterbury: blasphemy? “What other business would complain when people shout out the name of the shop?”
The Holy Family with Saint Barbara and the Young Saint John the Baptist by Paolo Veronese.Credit:Summerfield Press/Corbis via Getty Images) .
In fact, Christianity has long traditions of sexualising Jesus in ways far more subtle and profound than anything Kaye’s lips can manage. Returning to the holy foreskin, Agnes Blannbekin, a 14th-century nun, used to tell her sisters about her visions of swallowing it “hundreds of times”. Renaissance portraits of Christ on the cross often show him with an erect penis – a theological point to emphasise his humanity.
Madonnas and child from that era, too, will show Mary gazing at Jesus’ genitals or even cupping them. Same principle: he is God the son but also God the father.
And as for Bernini’s famous statue of St Teresa in ecstasy, pierced by the arrow of divine love. Well, you get the idea. The broader point is this: a religion which has so often harnessed the erotic potential of its saints and deity can hardly expect others to declare that strategy off-limits in their criticisms.
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.Credit:Getty
Kaye’s joke implies Jesus has a homosexual backstory – but, again, get real. If Christians are going to tell gays that their lifestyles are sinful – and, for centuries, that has been the overwhelming position – then they can hardly expect an easy ride from the LGBTQI+ community. For many queer people, institutional Christianity is a source of sorrow and historic persecution. Its teachings are an origin of gay shame.
Humour has always been an important way of fighting back, and wise Christian leaders will take a joke.
When Rihanna dressed as a “genderf—” pope for the 2018 Met Gala, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan just laughed it off. He seemed the bigger man – much more so than the ludicrous Spanish bishop who, in 2017, said that a drag queen who dressed up as the Virgin Mary left him sadder than when a plane crashed killing 154 people.
Leaders such as Dolan build bridges, ties and understanding. They won’t end the jokes, of course, but they shouldn’t want to or try to. Rather, it’s best to treat such things as a sign of Christianity’s ongoing cultural relevance in an increasingly post-Christian West.
And, frankly, what claim do churches really have to sole ownership of Judaeo-Christian culture anyway? We all ought to see such things are part of our common heritage as inhabitants of European or post-European settler-colonial societies.
The cardinal archbishop of New York is no more the rightful inheritor of Catholic kitsch than Italian-American artists such as Madonna (whose 1989 single Like a Prayer was the source of much Vatican angst) or Aquaria (the heavenly queen of drag Marys).
Thank God, whichever God, that we don’t have enforceable blasphemy laws Down Under. It’s another respect in which we live in the Lucky Country, for you’d have to be blind not to see the growing menace of such restrictions on free speech elsewhere in the Anglosphere.
Sinister and unpleasant individuals are constantly trying to deny legitimate expression under the guise of taking offence and combatting “-phobias”. Christians shouldn’t let them, if only out of a self-interested awareness that there’s plenty in their catechism that others too could deem hateful or be offended by.
Turn the other cheek, as Jesus himself put it. Reuben Kaye can work out for himself which cheek he was talking about.
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