Assemblies of God Theological SeminaryFebruary 2015
The Life of Brian, Charlie Hebdo, and the Prophet:
Can God Take a Joke?
February 2015


I've noticed that with age, the propriety filters of people tend to get neutralized. I'm around my mom's friends regularly, who are all in their 90's, and they simply don't care much about impressing people. They offer a lot of remarks that leave one a bit speechless. Since gray hair has overtaken me, that must be the sign that I am willing to launch into subject matter that I might have deemed a bit dicey in the past. One of those volatile areas is the increasingly loud arena of what it means to live in a world where faith traditions are colliding in increasingly violent ways.


The events in Paris, at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, are a prime example of the collision that occurs between the worldview prevalent in a secularized society and those who possess a passionately theocentric view of the world. The tragedy that unfolded has multiple layers revealing smoldering issues brought to the surface by this violent episode.  Frankly, there are few pathways that will ease us through the challenges that the Charlie Hebdo event have revealed. The predisposition ofCharlie Hebdo is to be irreverent about most everything in life and the assumption that freedom of the press makes everyone an equal target of this "artistic" literary expression is juxtaposed against deep affirmation that messing with the Prophet Mohammed is an affront to Allah himself that requires a vigorous response to protect the honor of their faith. I do think that there should be a healthy debate identifying the fine line between insightful and even prophetic humor that unmasks religious hypocrisy and the comedy that flippantly drags another person's sacred beliefs through the muck and mire. This violent Parisian episode reveals that "a conversation" about the obvious disconnect in worldviews is not going to happen any time soon.


I recently read some of the remarks that Pastor Scott Johnston offered to his congregation at the 5th Ave. Presbyterian Church in New York City following the

Charlie Hebdo incident. His pastoral remarks start with how Christians should think about the God revealed in Scripture. He notes that there have been an increasing number of "artistic" expressions interpreting Christian themes that may leave one gasping for air or grasping for some object to throw at the artist. Pastor Johnston talked about one such episode he faced early in his life when the British comedy team, Monty Python, produced the film, The Life of Brian. The film's plot tells the story of Brian Cohen, a young Jewish boy born on the same day and next door to Jesus. The comedy farce begins with the Three Wise Men mistaking Brian for Jesus the Messiah. Johnston remembers his pastor warned that this film would be "corrosive to children's faith."  


The Last Temptation of Christ or Jesus of Montreal might be other examples of films in a list that causes controversy over a root of cynicism about Christianity veiled as attempts at artistic expression, but Johnston goes beyond all that highly arguable stuff and asks an intriguing question? "Can God handle a bad joke, a rude joke, a joke that even the most irreverent secularized person would find offensive?" That question gets at the heart of the God who is revealed in Scripture.  


The question that follows might be, "Does God take offense at these jabs at His character and expect followers to avenge God's divine honor? St. Paul answered that question when he wrote, "Beloved never avenge yourselves. For it is written, vengeance is mine says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). I think we can say that God isn't slouching around heaven with a wounded ego. God certainly doesn't need armed defenders. Pastor Johnston put it this way:


The tragic news out of Paris should set every religious tradition on alert. When people of faith lose their sense of humor they embrace one of the oldest sins in the book: idolatry. The assailants in Paris fashioned a deity out of their own broken image. Any God who would require his followers to exact vengeance on unarmed cartoonists is not the powerful trustworthy God I would wager whom most people of faith, regardless of their tradition, worship and adore.


The Charlie Hebdo incident is but one revealing moment where we see the dark side of competing views of the world. The fullest analysis of these increasingly tragic moments on the global scene must not be left to the talking heads at Fox, CNN, and Al Jazeera to adjudicate. This is the world we live in and we are called to bear faithful witness to Jesus in the middle of messiness, violence, and cynicism.  More than ever, followers of Jesus need to heed the insights of Moses as he saw what was at stake for God's people at a critical juncture in their history: "If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all other people on the face of the earth" (Exod. 33:15-16)? 


I haven't quite figured out what all is at stake in these critical moments in history but, like Moses, I know that we are in for some huge challenges. Unless we get to some bottom line/foundational issues, our energies will be expended on efforts that seem vital, but fail to faithfully reveal the God we say we represent. I find a great starting point in the powerful words of the late British missionary, Leslie Newbiggin: "How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it." 



Byron D. Klaus, President
Assemblies of God Theological Seminary


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