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And now for a fascinating example of the recent reception history of a religious figure …

St Matthew in the City, a progressive Anglican church in Auckland (the biggest city – not that this is saying a whole lot – in New Zealand), is planning to erect a controversial billboard to raise awareness of the ‘Christ’ part of Christmas and to provoke discussion about the holiday and its meaning.  The billboard shows Mary and Joseph in bed and makes a cheeky, glancing reference to the Virgin Birth:

Billboard for St Matthew in the City, Auckland, New Zealand

The billboard, before it has even made its first public appearance on the street, is being roundly decried by Family First New Zealand, a conservative Evangelical group in the mode of the American Focus on the Family.  Family First’s Bob McCoskrie had this to say about the advertisement:

The church can have its debate on the virgin birth and its spiritual significance inside the church building, but to confront children and families with the concept as a street billboard is completely irresponsible and unnecessary … The church has failed to recognise that public billboards are exposed to all of the public including children and families who may be offended by the material.

The assertion that children could possibly be offended by the material is simply nonsensical, especially in a heavily secularised (and often illiterate and anti-intellectual) place like New Zealand, where a fair percentage of the people who see the billboard will be rather likely not to even understand what it is referring to.  If this really is offensive, than all the better, as being offended is tantamount to having to think seriously about something.  On an incidental note, the consequences of this last sentiment – that advertising that offends should not be allowed – are vast when we consider that there are people out there, me for instance, who find mediocrity of any kind offensive.

There is a long-standing tradition in Christianity to immediately condemn any connection between Jesus and sexual activity of any kind.  Whether this is due to a perceived need to defend the ludicrous doctrine of the virgin birth from critique (is the NT wrong?) or simply another aspect of the long historical tradition that claims the elevated, the divine, or the righteous are not subject to the same bodily weaknesses and urges that the rest of us are endlessly plagued with (for Deane’s thoughts on this, see here and here), remains an open question.  We saw similar tendencies in reactions to the rubbish novel and film The Da Vinci Code and to the brilliant novel and film The Last Temptation of Christ.  Despite all of the ballyhoo to the contrary, I want to suggest that these negative reactions were related more to the idea of a sexual Jesus (which Martin Scorcese’s film showed in some detail) than to any of these texts’  other criticisms of the churches.

In a final note, the billboard, by a mainline Christian church, is in some ways far more subversive, and certainly far more intelligent, than the recent advertising campaign by the New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign, which raised $20,000 from donations to place advertisements on  a number of public buses that read ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.  That this is a cliched and seriously tired sentiment (though one that still applies most to a certain breed of Calvinist) need pass by without mention.  That they feel the need to add the word ‘probably’ reveals either that they are  deliberately trying to tone down their message or are simply unsure of themselves makes them both bad provocateurs and bad atheists.   This kind of waffling undermines the whole of the campaign.  True atheism needs to be both bold, unequivocal, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, historically aware.  The billboard, on the other hand, is thought-provoking, even to someone who has already in this post declared the idea of virgin birth as ‘ludicrous’.  It also has the distinct advantage of actually being funny – I love the wistful look in Mary’s eyes as she gazes heavenward and thinks what are most likely very impure thoughts about her God – and of using humour to a far more serious purpose than a knee-jerk appeal to a bland and poorly understood atheism – without God, are we completely free from any obligation as moral agents, free to simply enjoy our lives, or (to employ a much-used and ultimately meaningless word) are we finally free to be happy?

Thanks to Stuff.co.nz for the image and the quotations (without their permission, of course, this is the Internet).