In Elizabethan times, playwrights were forbidden to mention God or Jesus onstage, lest they inadvertently violate the Commandment against taking God's name in vain. In this most creative age of English drama, dramatists such as Shakespeare had to use indirect terminology such as "Heaven" or "Providence" to explore their theological themes.
What would the Elizabethans think about a play depicting Jesus as a homosexual with the 12 disciples as his traveling harem?
The upcoming production, titled Corpus Christi-Latin for "the body of Christ"-is not some obscure bit of perversity from the pornography subculture or the lunatic fringe. Rather, it comes straight from the country's arts and culture establishment. Its author, Terrence McNally, has won three Tony Awards. The play, originally scheduled for October, is to be put on by the Manhattan Theater Club, one of New York's most important off-Broadway venues.
And yes, there is an NEA connection. Although the National Endowment for the Arts is not funding this particular play, the Manhattan Theater Club received $125,000 in tax money to fund an education program in New York City high schools. Another $80,000 went for the "creation and preservation" of new plays for the season. Although Mr. McNally's play was reportedly not among those funded, money for one project frees up money for others.
The play had its first reading at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. This is a public, tax-supported school in the home state of Sen. Jesse Helms, scourge of the NEA. Mr. McNally led a workshop in which he had students act out his script as a work-in-progress. The School of the Arts was originally for high-school-aged children, though it has since become affiliated with the University of North Carolina system. (It is not clear at this point whether the students who had to act out the play were teenagers, college students, or adults.)
The play reportedly begins with a group of homosexual men drawing lots for the different roles. One plays "Joshua," the Hebrew version of "Jesus," and the others adopt the roles of the disciples, as well as the Virgin Mary in drag. They then enact the Passion Story, complete with King James Version English, but with a homosexual twist: "Art thou the king of the queers?" asks the play's Pontius Pilate. "Thou sayest," responds "Joshua."
The sex is not shown onstage, according to those who attended the play's initial readings, but the disciples talk about having sex with Joshua.
Once news of the production came out, even sophisticated New Yorkers questioned the judgment of putting on such a play, and as outraged Christians voiced their protests, the Manhattan Theater Club announced its cancellation.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights was the first to organize public protests, condemning the play as anti-Christian bigotry and warning that if the play is shown, "We'll wage a war that no one will forget." The Manhattan Theater Club reported getting death threats and promises to burn their theater down.
Even some New York drama critics expressed their uneasiness over the play. One of the club's corporate sponsors, TWA, said it would pull its $25,000 subsidy if the play were performed.
In the face of the uproar, the Manhattan Theater Club cancelled the play, citing fears about security. It seemed that the free market had duly noted when a work of art had stepped over the line.
But then came an even greater uproar, only from the other side. The distinguished South African playwright Athol Fugard, who was also being featured in the club's fall season, withdrew his play in protest of the "censorship." Actors rose in righteous indignation, wrapping themselves in the flag of free speech and artistic freedom. "I don't know where we are as a country," said actress Patti Lupone on CNN. "It's not a country of ideas."
For a company to decide not to run a play is not censorship. A reader who chooses not to buy a particular book is not censoring that book. A publisher who rejects a manuscript is not committing censorship. Corpus Christi was not being outlawed by the government, which is what censorship means; rather, its cancellation was the free market at work. Nor was Mr. McNally's artistic freedom being interfered with. He was free to create his play, and he did. But the public and producers are also free not to buy a particular play. There are any number of reasons a work of art might not be purchased or produced. Questions of taste, worries about audience reaction, and fears about unprofitability are totally legitimate criteria and are used every day in the world of the arts and media.
But then the Manhattan Theater Club caved again. Other theater groups across the country offered to take up the mantle and do the play themselves. The specter of caving in to right-wing homophobes was invoked. Club officials were looking bad in their social circles. In the face of such peer pressure, the Manhattan Theater Club reversed its decision. Artistic director Lynne Meadow announced: "We have been in contact with Police Commissioner Howard Safir and his intelligence division, which have been overwhelmingly supportive in stepping in to aid our endeavors and give us the reasonable assurances we need to produce this play responsibly and safely." In other words, protesters may face serious jail time.
America's cultural elite has no conception of how monstrously offensive such a portrayal of their Lord and Savior is to Christians. The secularists have no sensitivity and no qualms about blasphemy.
Salman Rushdie had a bounty put on his head by an Islamic court simply for implying in a novel that Mohammed's wives were unfaithful. A Christian in Pakistan was sentenced to death simply for praising Mr. Rushdie's novel. This play goes much, much further in its sacrilege.
In a time that pretends to value sensitivity and multiculturalism, dramatizations of the sex life of Martin Luther King-much less of Mohammed-would be condemned as the coarsest bigotry, probably by the same people who are now defending Corpus Christi. The sensibilities of Christians, however, remain fair game.
Christianity has a different spirit, though, than Islam. Followers of Christ-who has always faced mockery and blasphemy from the sinners he came to redeem-will have no interest in murdering Mr. McMally or bombing the Manhattan Theater Club. The author and his Manhattanites will someday face a more significant reckoning.
It is not clear whether the controversy over this play will spark a backlash against the arts establishment, with its homophilia and contempt for the religious public, or whether it will provoke a backlash against Christians, whose inevitable protests will likely be spun into sinister proportions by the media.
Expect the controversy to reignite opposition to the NEA, an issue that has become moribund in Congress and among Republicans, who have assumed that putting the head of the Country Music Foundation in charge and toning down the number of offensive grants would quiet the critics.
The issue, however, goes far beyond the pathologies of the art world.Defenders of the play will be saying that it is, in fact, respectful of Christ. Self-righteousness is the last refuge of a sinner, and homosexuals have been eagerly justifying their vices in moralistic and religious terms. And liberal theologians in the church have been eager to play along.
What is depicted in the play has become commonplace in theological books and journals, many of which are making the argument that since Jesus was unmarried, hung around with men, had a "beloved disciple," and the like, he can be central to a "gay theology." Proponents of the ordination of homosexuals, "gay marriage," and changing the Christian sexual ethos to sanction homosexual acts have been putting forward such ideas for years. Just as the so-called "Queer theory," which looks at academic disciplines such as literature, history, and cultural studies from a homosexual point of view, has become entrenched in contemporary academia, its tenets are being applied in contemporary theology. In fact, such scholarship represents a significant branch of academic theology today.
Christians, particularly those in mainline churches, concerned about this off-Broadway production would do well to check out the course offerings and reading lists of their seminaries and divinity schools.
Blasphemy is not just theatrical. It's theological. It's taking place not just in the worldly streets off Broadway, but in ostensibly Christian churches. Perhaps the production of Corpus Christi will prove to be a catalyst-whether for action or for discernment or for the onset of overt persecution from a hostile culture-that will energize the genuine Body of Christ.