As Wisconsin Bans a Theatrical Production, Some Questions

“The forces of intolerance just won another victory in Wisconsin,” is how The Progressive headlines a story about a “rightwing evangelical” whose complaints prompted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to cancel a planned production of  “The Bible: Complete Word of God, Abridged” in a state park. From the article:

“Vic Eliason raised a stink. Eliason is an evangelical clergyman in Milwaukee who runs the VCY (Voices of Christian Youth) America Radio Network. He has a show, “Cross Currents,” in Milwaukee, and on August 9, he dedicated his hour-long program to condemning the play as “blasphemous” and “diabolical.” He urged his listeners to contact the board members of SummerStage, and he gave out their numbers. He also urged listeners to call the businesses where some of the board members worked and ask them, “How can you have someone on the board who will literally spit in the face of the Bible?” Eliason also gave out the phone numbers of the DNR’s top two officials and told listeners to ask them why the state was allowing this play to go on, and why it was profiting from it. (The agreement with SummerStage and the Lapham Peak State Park is that 5 percent of ticket sales go to the park, Eliason said.)”

The article ridicules the state and Ellison on several grounds. The play, it notes, is “very light-hearted,” a spoof of the Bible. Ellison admits he never read the script, but that the theme of the comedy is enough. The statement of the Department in cancelling the play smacks of dishonesty: “SummerStage will not be performing ‘The Bible – the Complete Word of God, Abridged’ at Lapham Peak as the event did not meet the provision of the Department agreement requiring all productions to be family oriented,” said a spokesperson. Translation: “This was turning into a hassle with the possibility of a lawsuit, and it just isn’t worth it.”

I agree that Eliason is an officious trouble-maker, a bully who sees nothing wrong with stopping people from entertaining and being entertained if he doesn’t approve of their taste. But I have some questions:

1. Would the Progressive react the same way of a group of atheists agitated to get a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” “A Man For All Seasons” or “Agnes of God” cancelled because it would constitute state support of religion?

2. Is it intolerant of religious citizens to oppose state-supported art that is hostile to or dismissive of organized religion, but not intolerant for atheists to oppose art that views religion positively? Why?

3. Brian Faracy, the founder of SummerStage, is quoted as saying, “This play has been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It’s been performed by church groups in churches. It’s a simple little comedy. The jokes are as old as Moses’s toes. There’s never been a problem with this play anywhere in the United States for 17 years until this guy decided that he alone knows what’s blasphemy.” Are any of these persuasive or even germane arguments? Communities displayed creches in the public square for a hundred years until someone sued about it—and won. If it’s wrong, what difference does it make how long a practice has been going on? The play may have been performed by churches, but the churches who haven’t performed it outnumber them greatly, so there is a rebuttable presumption that the play’s friendliness to religion is a minority position. The jokes are old? So are racist jokes; age does not guarantee appropriateness. And how does the fact that a play was deemed appropriate for the Kennedy Center argue for its appropriateness in a Wisconsin State Park? If the advocate for a work of art can only raise invalid defenses, what does that suggest?

4. Eliason says,  “If we were to make fun of the holy book of the Sikhs, we’d be hung in effigy. If you make even a hint of anything disrespectful of the Koran, people die in the streets over that. And yet these people felt they had the right to insult the holy word of God to Christians and people of God all over the area.” Has he not correctly identified a double standard?

5. David Cecsarini, the founder of Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee, sent a letter  to other theater artistic directors in Wisconsin, saying  “I find it absolutely frightening that such public-opinion censorship can occur, so swiftly and inexorably, over a piece that’s lighter-than-air and just for fun. What might happen when we produce something that actually merits attention because it does indeed take on controversial subject matter? I believe we all have a stake in this, as producers, as artists, and as citizens.” He now is trying to get the play done elsewhere, saying, “The play needs to be done.

Hmmm. I’m sure Nazis who did anti-Jewish spoofs in the 30’s thought they were “just for fun” too. Isn’t the definition of what is fun subjective? Is Cecserani playing dumb about the difference between religion and other controversial topics? Does he really think a State Park would allow a play opposing abortion, for example, or that there wouldn’t be an outcry that would probably doom the piece? If the play isn’t about something that “merits attention” and is “lighter-than-air,” then why does he say ““The play needs to be done”? Doesn’t that sound like there is an agenda? Must it be done because it ridicules Christianity? Why must it be done?

6. If a state can’t celebrate, feature, highlight or be positive about a religion, its tenets and its holy writings, why should it be permissible for the state to be hostile toward, ridicule, make fun of or otherwise undermine support or respect for a religious faith?

______________________________________

Pointer: Brian Crane Via Facebook

Facts: The Progressive

Graphic: Carpenter Square Theater

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

11 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Government & Politics, Religion and Philosophy, U.S. Society

11 responses to “As Wisconsin Bans a Theatrical Production, Some Questions

  1. A better report:

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/waukesha/censorship-battle-leads-summerstage-play-to-new-venue-7f6k0i2-167388815.html

    The DNR caved this week, but with some contractual justification, Davis acknowledged.

    In a letter Wednesday, Kimberly Currie of the DNR’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation confirmed that SummerStage would not perform the play because it wasn’t a “family-oriented production” as required under the contract. Davis said that SoundStage promotions had suggested children under 13 not attend.

    “We just didn’t think kids would get it,” he said. “They just used that against us.”

    • Elizabeth I

      13-year-olds are a lot smarter than one thinks. My own son knows satire when he sees it, and revels in it. More, more, and more stupidity.

  2. Bill

    This is a piece of lite fluff comedy that is in line with David and Goliath. Anyone who thinks is blasphemy is an idiot and not only should his opinions and wants be ignored he should be ridiculed.

    Jesus Christ Superstar is more blasphemous then it and the other shows you mentioned.

    • I don’t think JCS is blasphemous or hostile to Christianity—some productions of it are. Godspell is certainly positive. “Piece of fluff” is subjective. It’s not unusual for religious people to take any irreverent treatment of their faith seriously.

      • Bill

        JCS can be seen as very blashemous. They constantly refer to him as “just a man” and remove the duality of the man/diety aspect of Christ.

  3. tgt

    You have questions, I have answers:

    1) I don’t know if the progressives would react the same way, but I know I, and most of the famous athiests would. PZ Myers, Dennett, Harris, pretty much all of FreeThoughtBlogs, the Secular Student Aliance, and American Athiests would all oppose an athiests attempt to get a christian play cancelled.

    2) It’s perfectly fine to oppose art you don’t like, but for neither side is it appropriate to try to get the art censored. In this case, we appear to have a limited public forum.

    3) I think the point of the quote was that this play hasn’t been seen by the religious as hostile to religion. Since the complainer admittedly did not read the script, I think this point was valid. Your rebuttal presumption is also silly and could go for pretty much anything. I do agree that the long existence of the play is irrelevant.

    4) Eliason is saying “Sikhs and Muslims behave badly, so why can’t Christians behave badly, too?” First, Sikhs aren’t known to people in effigy. Second, the proper fix would be to stop the bad Muslims, not have Christians be bad.

    5) First, we live in a country with freedom of religion, not 1930s and 1940s germany. Second, you’re equivocating on Judaism. It’s both a religion and a race. The play must be done because giving up would be giving in to censorship. They also likely have already committed time and money to the production. Cancelling it wouldn’t be right.

    6) It isn’t permissible. Was this supposed to be related to the post? The state isn’t doing anything with religion here. Limited public forum.

    • Good answers. Thanks. I agree pretty much across the board.

      I’m not entirely sure, however, that an Establishment Clause couldn’t be made about a government deal to profit off of a pro-religion play produced in a state park. Maybe there has already been such a case, but I’m not aware of any.

      • tgt

        I don’t see any substantive difference between giving points to put the play on in the park and giving a fixed fee to put the play on in a school auditorium. I am assuming that the play is independent from the state park and was not given preferential treatment due to it’s religious content.

      • Elizabeth I

        Just visit the National Museum of Art if you want to see “blasphemy.” Or performance art funded by the National Endowment. As far as I’m concerned, all bets are off. If you don’t want your kid to see something, don’t let him/her. Whether it be live theater, television, YouTube, or Broadway. Who has the responsibility here? NOT the state, I am sure, or we’re heading down a wrong, scary road.

        • Curmudgeon

          There’s no real hard-and-fast definition of “blasphemy”. Blasphemy is in the eye of the boholder. I’m sure there are some who’d call it blasphemous to fart during the National Anthem.

  4. Curmudgeon

    In Missoula MT some years ago the film “Life of Brian”, certainly very light-hearted about Jesus, was scheduled in a movie theater. Some offended “Christians” (who’d never seen the film) tried to get City Council to ban it. City said it was not in the censorship business. So all the poor martyred victimized “Christians” could do was picket the theater. It had very good box office, thanks to the publicity. Later, local producer of “JC Superstar” asked, “Hmmm — you suppose we could get them to picket us?”

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