A genre-breaking work ? Or blasphemy designed to damage and outrage? The BBC’s broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera sparked unprecedented protest. People – non-believers as well as the faithful - started to think very differently about the public image of Christians. Susan Roberts investigates
For Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, the matter is cut and dried – black and white, crystal clear. He’s not a man beset by doubt.
”The public has a misconception of Christianity as a religion for women and wimps,” he told surefish. “One of the misconceptions we hope was dispelled was that Christians don’t have any backbone.”
The previously little-known Christian Voice helped orchestrate the controversial protest against the BBC’s broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera in earlier this month. The show has run for years in the West End but its broadcast on Saturday night TV struck a nerve.
More than 45,000 people called the BBC to protest against its language (swearing) and content (sex scenes involving Eve and Jesus). Hundreds gathered on the night outside BBC offices in London for prayer vigils.
The protest gained an even longer media shelf life when it transpired that Christian Voice had published the addresses and phone numbers of two BBC executives on its website. Press reports, denied by Christian Voice and later denied by the BBC, said they had been harassed and received death threats.
This left a nasty taste – and led to claims that a tough new Christian militancy was emerging. Green hasn’t left the protest at that: he’s pursuing a blasphemy case against the BBC.
And others haven’t put down their cudgels either, saying that the protest was over the top and ill-formed. Many commentators – and viewers - see The Opera as a comment on the emptiness of TV culture and about as dangerous as Monty Python’s Life of Brian. They think that protesting Christians may have shot themselves in the foot by the vehemence of their condemnation, aping the worst excesses of the Christian Right in the US.
But Jayne Ozanne, international director of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), sees a different trend emerging. A marketing strategist who formerly worked for the BBC, she hit the headlines herself in December by writing a paper at the end of a six-year term on the Archbishops’ Council, effectively the Church of England’s top management committee.
Such was the level of hostility to Christians in this country, they would eventually be driven underground, frightened to profess their faith, she wrote.
She told surefish that the protest over the Jerry Springer - The Opera broadcast showed that many people have simply had enough. Their protests have been ignored for too long and now they want to speak out. A new phenomenon for Christians – people communicating via email through friends, and friends of friends – has created a powerful common voice.
“I think that what we’re seeing is a grass-roots structure,” she said. “A church in this country is forming that crosses denominations or boundaries, a network of believers who recognise the mark of Christianity in their neighbours.
“I do think that on many issues in this nation, a very large silent majority of people – because of our politically correct ‘tolerant’ straitjackets - feel that they are not allowed to say what they really think about a whole range of issues. And that actually our politically correct ‘tolerant’ age is in many ways intolerant.”
But others have more than a twinge of concern when they hear Christians complaining about oppression.
Jonathan Bartley is director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia. He, too, is a man with a mission: ‘to promote radical theological ideas in public life through a radical approach’. But he feels that Christian protest is an integral part of living, that one’s faith is defined in one’s everyday actions.
“It does seem that Christians are developing a persecution complex,” he says, pointing out that the Vatican before Christmas started a move to have ‘Christianophobia’ recognised as an evil equal to hatred of Jews and Muslims.
But, in his view, it’s madness to talk of persecution in this case.
“Christians have an incredibly privileged position in this country, 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, acts of Christian worship in schools, prayers in Parliament. The Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Blasphemy laws only apply to the Christian faith and only officially protect the Church of England.”
Christians are often a target for ridicule in popular culture, he agrees. But, in his opinion, they play into people’s hands by protests like the crude and un-nuanced outcry against Jerry Springer - The Opera. In fact, Christians don’t get any more of a raw deal than anyone else, he says. In some cases less, perhaps.
“Look at the BBC’s Little Britain, almost everyone comes in for gentle ridicule in those sketches apart from Christians. No one mentions that.”
For him, the case is clearly not cut and dried. The danger he sees is that - as Christian Voice pursues a blasphemy case against the BBC and other ‘militant’ acts continue – more truly relevant issues will be pushed out of the news.
Christian peacemaker teams in Iraq helped expose prisoner abuse; the World Council of Churches is doing great work in Palestine. This is what people really ought to think about when they think ‘Christian’, he suggests.
“There are islands of integrity, radical Christian stuff that never gets heard about because these big moral panics dominate the headlines.”