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Pre-emptive outrage becomes an Adelaide habit

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Why is Adelaide’s first response to potentially controversial art to censor it – sight unseen?

The latest target is a Victorian comedian who, until now, was probably looking at a couple of hundred punters seeing his show – at best.

Now, the furrowed-browed would-be censors have guaranteed him a full house.

Comedian Joshua Ladgrove has come up with a Fringe show – Come Heckle Christ – in which he encourages the audience to interact with him in what we presume is a loose interpretation of the figure of Christ. It has been condemned by some Christian groups and commentators (the Fringe, for its part, says it won’t scrap a show unless it is breaking the law).

Will Ladgrove’s performance be funny, witty, stupid, intelligent, blasphemous, tasteless or otherwise? Who knows? Certainly not me – because I haven’t seen it.

This reviewer did see his show in Melbourne last year and described it as “a simple idea, bravely and brilliantly executed”. It also sounds as though it would be an uncomfortable experience for some Christians.

You or I might disagree. Opinions about art always tend to vary.

The worry is that this sort of pre-emptive outrage is becoming a tedious Adelaide habit.

Last year, we ran photographer Bill Henson out of town before he’d even got here (even though he was to exhibit nothing more controversial than images of doors and landscapes).

Then, producers of an opera based on a book which, in turn, makes reference to the disappearance of the Beaumont children, were given a frightful time by the local arbiters of taste. The opera hasn’t even been written yet.

Of course, any mention of a religious figure is likely to attract extra controversy. It always has.

In recent history, even relatively benign artistic presentations of the story of Christ have attracted trenchant criticism.

We forget that the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were both controversial in their portrayals of Jesus.

Then there was The Life of Brian, considered by many to be the greatest work by the Monty Python team. Familiarity has blunted the controversy (and I’m sure Ladgrove won’t be doing anything quite as confronting as the singing crucified blokes in “Brian” whistling away during “Always look on the bright side of life”).

As Python member Terry Gilliam puts it, the movie hardly caused the demise of Christianity.

“With Life of Brian we were vilified by Christians,” he told The Independent. “Yet Christianity is alive and well. Come on, if your religion is so vulnerable that a little bit of disrespect is going to bring it down, it’s not worth believing in, frankly.”

Artists have found themselves in more serious hot water over more substantial works.

Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis was excommunicated and vilified for his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was banned by the Vatican. Martin Scorsese’s film of the book suffered a similar fate with numerous theatres refusing to screen it.

I’ve always found it baffling why the book or the film attracted any controversy, all of which seemed to be based on the portrayal of Jesus  yearning for, but rejecting, the ordinary trappings of human life, including marriage. In one scene he imagines a life of love and marriage with Mary Magdalene.

Here’s what the author said about his aims for the book: “I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death — because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered.”

Hardly the words – or the work – of a man seeking to tear down religion. In fact, the controversial scenes are in line with an orthodox understanding of Christianity.

Even Ladgrove’s little show has shadows of the Christ story (is it a coincidence that his name, Joshua, is a derivation of the name Jesus?).

As the Gospels tell it, Jesus was mocked – “heckled”, if you like – during his torture and execution. The idea of using comedy to put modern audiences into this role seems to create all sorts of interesting possibilities.

Followers of all religions seem to fear most the presentation of human frailty within their deities, yet the power and, indeed, the whole point of the story of Jesus Christ from a Christian perspective is that he is God become human.

In the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in The Last Temptation (the novel), Kazantzakis has Jesus fall to the ground and inhale the smell of the earth – realising that his death will come soon but yearning to remain in the physical world that he has grown to love.

It’s a heartbreaking passage.

I don’t suppose that a young comedian presenting a tiny show at the Fringe will reach such heights.

But if he shows audiences a little piece of the humanity of Jesus – a figure that inspired the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King – then maybe he might actually do more for Christianity than any number of po-faced naysayers.

Of course, he might not: it might be cheap, shallow and crass.

I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen the show.

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