Sunday, December 18, 2011

Catholic parody?

Every time I read or hear about some crazy fundamentalist person or group doing something crazy, which is generally why they’re called “crazy”, I think of this:
“Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.”
That’s called Poe’s Law, and it refers to things on the Internet, but it seems to me it applies equally to real life. The essence of Poe’s Law is that because extremism is extreme, any parody must also be extreme, making it impossible to tell the two apart. More instructive, in real life in particular, is its corollary: Legitimate fundamentalist action or belief will often be mistaken for parody.

So I’m unsure whether Poe’s Law is in play in Auckland.

St. Matthew-in-the-City, a progressive Anglican church, put up another billboard that the religiously precious find challenging. This year, that appears to include Roman Catholics, who until recent years have not been thought of as being very similar to protestant fundamentalists.

The church said of the billboard, pictured above:
This billboard portrays Mary, Jesus’ mother, looking at a home pregnancy test kit revealing that she is pregnant. Regardless of any premonition, that discovery would have been shocking. Mary was unmarried, young, and poor. This pregnancy would shape her future. She was certainly not the first woman in this situation or the last.

As in the past it is our intention to avoid the sentimental, trite and expected to spark thought and conversation in the community. This year we hope to do so with an image and no words. We invite you to wonder what your caption might be.

Although the make-believe of Christmas is enjoyable—with tinsel, Santa, reindeer, and carols—there are also some realities. Many in our society are suffering: some through the lack of money, some through poor health, some through violence, and some through other hardships. The joy of Christmas is muted by anxiety.
I’m including so much of the church’s explanation because I doubt many people—and certainly not its critics—would bother to go to their site to look it up, and context always matters. They describe their intention by saying, “Christmas is real. It’s about a real pregnancy, a real mother and a real child. It’s about real anxiety, courage and hope,” and they sum it all up: “In this season we encourage one another to be generous to those who suffer…” That sounds to me like traditional Christian values.

Some Roman Catholics seem to have disagreed: They vandalised the billboard, held a “service” in front of it, and promised to vandalise the billboard again, if it should be replaced. Are they for real, or are they doing deep cover parody?

Let assume for the moment that this was done by real rightwing catholics whose catholic extremist group, “Catholic Action Group”, is also real (although, I’ve never heard of it before today, so I have no idea if it’s real or not). If they’re real, then it’s really pretty hilariously stupid. Said their spokesman, Arthur Skinner:
"This particular church—so called—is run by a gay, feminist-type lobby. They claim to be Christian and yet they put up a blasphemous image of the Blessed Virgin, attacking her virginity and the fact that she was the mother of Christ, the God-Man." [in fact, the poster says nothing whatsoever about how Mary came to be pregnant and doesn’t “attack” anyone—there are no words].
Fundamentalists of all stripes are adamant that they alone have the sole, exclusive and inarguable right to define who is and is not of their religion. Still, wacky though it may be, it’s not too far to the right of what mainstream Catholics might think.

And yet I wonder if it might all be performance art. Skinner said Anglicans are "basically heretics", and apparently left phone messages at the church declaring that those at the church behind the poster would "certainly burn in hell" if they didn’t “repent” (whatever that means in this case). Skinner spelled-out his claim of Anglican heresy by saying: “There's only one faith—the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith—because we go right back in our papal line to Christ.”

I don’t know, do extreme rightwing Catholics really think like that? I’ve never known any, so I can’t ask, and I seem to have misplaced Mel Gibson’s phone number. Still, even if they do really think that, it wouldn’t in any way make them correct: There are billions of people in the world who aren’t part of the Roman church, after all.

And, would anyone but deep cover parodists actually say such silly things about the poster? This was my favourite: "This is Satanic, this is the ultimate Satanic attack, when Lucifer attacks his worst enemy, the Blessed Virgin.” I always thought their god was Lucifer’s worst enemy, having cast it out of heaven and all that. Who knew?

Clearly the real Roman Catholic church thinks the group is for real: Their spokesperson told the Herald on Sunday that the supposed group had absolutely nothing to do with the real Catholic church. To her credit, she added: "I have been critical of the poster, but the last thing we would want to do would be anything destructive." I take her, and her church, at their word on that.

As was the case with a more provocative billboard St Matthew’s put up two years ago, some people are so hyper-sensitive to any sort of imagined offence that they’ll lash out and resort to property damage to try and protect their particular self-image. Some self-described Christians loudly complain about and condemn fundamentalist muslims putting death decrees on people for writing books or publishing cartoons, but are Christians who destroy billboards really any different except, obviously, in degree? Attempting to violently suppress views that make us feel uncomfortable or offended isn’t supposed to be part of democratic western societies—is it? Freedom of expression does not carry with it freedom from being offended.

And that for me is the crux (so to speak) of the whole thing: Offence is an entirely subjective thing. I have been offended in the past, and some of those times I’ve over-reacted. But I’m trying to do better, to be better, about not being easily offended. Something I said earlier this year about another billboard controversy with the same church I think is apt here, too:
“The fate of the universe will not be determined by the existence of these billboards… If we freak out every time someone says something we don’t like, pretty soon we’re in permanent freak-out mode and eventually no one will take us seriously about anything.”
That’s why I can’t tell if those people were real rightwing catholics or parodists: Their words and actions are so outrageous, so out of proportion to their imagined offence that I simply can’t take them seriously. Until and unless I see inarguable facts, I’m falling back on Poe’s Law: It’s impossible to tell if those loons are real or not.

Related: Another reason I'm hesitant to believe this is real and not parody is that I've fallen for deep cover parody in the past.

Update: It turns out they're real, and I've done a follow-up post about them.

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