Saturday, September 23, 2006

Madonna Crucified; Veggie Tales Maimed

O.K. let me see if I understand this.

NBC has standards. It will broadcast 'universal' religious values, but nothing sectarian, nothing that supports or promotes a particular denomination or religion. (And what precisely would those values be?) On this basis, NBC is busily editing and then broadcasting Veggie Tales, perhaps one of the most creative Christian children's shows in years. One of the original creators and producers of the show, Phil Vischer has publicly protested the denuding of Veggie Tales of some of its more overt Christian material-- to no avail. Here is the link from the NY Times so you can read all about it.

And then there is Madonna. She has been busily touring the world and producing all sorts of protests by Christians all over the place for a particular scene in her performance in which mounts a cross and sings from the cross.

Of course Madonna herself thinks Jesus would have no problem with this. The article says "Madonna also issued a statement on Thursday saying that the performance was “neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous.” “Rather,” it went on to say, “it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today, he would be doing the same thing.”

NBC still hasn 't decided whether to air this part of the concert, which it will be airing at least some of during November sweeps week. No problem and no debate about editing Veggie Tales, but they're still debating about that crucifixion scene involving Madonna.

Now I know a lot of very conservative Christians who would love to see Madonna crucified, and if it was on national TV, all the better, but let's just imagine the debate in the NBC editing room for a moment:

Editor One:
" We'll you have to admit the crucifixion scene is known world wide, and there are millions who find religious value in it. I suppose that makes it a universal religious value."

Editor Two:

"Yeah, and Madonna has personally told us it passed the WWJD test! That ought to count for something."

Editor One:

"On the other hand, a cross is a symbol of Christianity, which is a particular religion, I'm thinking we had better edit this scene out of the concert."

Editor Two:

"Yeah but, Madonna on the cross is not the same as Jesus on the cross, and there is no religion that believes Madonna died for our sins--- is there??? I'm just asking..."

Editor One:

"O.K. you've got a point there. But I'm holding firm on that Veggie Tales decision. We can't be having Christianity leaking into our children's programming."

Editor Two:

"Certainly not!"


Marc Axelrod said...

Nothing that goes on in the unsaved world surprises me anymore. Daniel said "Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand." (Dan 12:10) This verse could almost be a caption under your dialogue.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Very well said.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Ben, do you have any thoughts on exactly why this is supposed to be blasphemous? I've seen many people asserting this, and not one has given an argument. Madonna apparently thinks her message is one Jesus would agree with (and I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary; she seems to be advocating working together to solve serious problems).

I don't know exactly what she thinks she's doing by putting herself on the cross, but as far as I can tell it may be no more than Jim Caviezel putting himself on a cross and saying things Jesus actually said, playing the part of Jesus. Christians regularly do skits and plays where they play Jesus, and they don't always use exactly Jesus' words but say things like "and I love you so much I stretched out my arms and died for you".

So I'm curious why this is blasphemous rather than just someone who has a checkered past playing the part of Jesus and saying things Jesus probably very strongly agrees with. If she were claiming to be Jesus or to be sufficiently like Jesus, that would be one thing, but I don't see that here. Maybe there's an argument here, but no one seems willing to give it.

SJBedard said...

What I find ironic is that Veggie Tales is not particularly Christian in focus but just promotes general traditional values sometimes illustated from the Bible. In fact I believe there has been only one show based on a New Testament story. When you look at even the Old Testament shows, I think you would have trouble offending either Jews or Muslims. I suspect that the creators kept things fairly general from the start hoping for this opportunity and they are probably quite surprised that their efforts were not enough.

Ben Witherington said...

Madonna act is offensive on two counts: 1) the cross is not a general Christian symbol of Jesus' support for universal values of any sort, It is the symbol of his unique once for all atonement for sins, something no other human being could accomplish, nor should even pretend to emulate; 2) Madonna is of course in the process of trying to make more money for herself by being deliberately provocative and disrespectful of Christian people's core values. I do not want to hear Madonna sing general platitudes from a cross when I remember the extreme suffering Jesus went through so that we might have atonement for our sins. This is just mockery at best and blasphemous at worst.


Neil said...

I'm sure NBC and Madonna will mock
Mohammad and Islam next, thus showing their desire for balance and how they courageously take on all icons.

This would also prove Rosie O'Donnell's point about the similarities between Islam and conservative Christianity, because I'm sure the Muslim response would also just be an email campaign.

Greg said...

Good stuff Ben!

Sad though that Veggie Tales ended up being edited.

I agree that Madonna's performance is offensive to Christians. Why? For me, given her history of statements and past performances, this is a pure mockery of Christians and their beliefs all in the name of sensationalism to earn more money.

Man, I still wish that Veggie Tales hadn't been edited!

DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

This is hearsay, but I was under the impression that the cruciform part of Madonna's performance occured while a large sceen projected stats about the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Now, while I agree that there is a great deal that is unique about the cross of Jesus, I am also inclined to agree with the language of the liberation theologians who describe many people within the third world as "the crucified people of today." Perhaps, Madonna's performance could gain positive Christian significance when viewed from this perspective?

Madonna would then be pointing to the crucified people of today and would be reminding us of the broken body of Jesus as it is found in the broken bodies of AIDS victims in Africa.

Of course, Madonna has a record of exploiting Christian imagery in provocative (and often rather trite) ways in order to make a buck or two (artists have done this for a long time and the crosses of Madonna, Kanye West and Mel Gibson's film are just recent manifestations)... but if she is connecting the image of the cross with stats about the AIDS pandemic then she might actually be making a decent point this time around.


Grace and peace,


Ben Witherington said...

I think that the AIDS crisis is an important moral issue, and one that Jesus would have a say in, were he with us in the flesh. I think however that there are much better ways, and more appropriate one's to highlight this crisis than by misusing the cross of Jesus, as Madonna has been doing. Why not have a video segment, in which she sings about their plight with pictures and brief interviews? There is no reason to attract attention to yourself by mounting a cross, even in the name of a good cause.

Mark said...

Perhap you yourself would prefer to be the final arbiter on all public entertainment.

Unless and until then, there will be things that you agree with and things you don't. It's one of the prices we pay for being in a free society. In such a society, we trust people's hearts and minds to sort the wheat from the chaff. There will be mistakes and errors in judgment, but in the end game, God's will will be done, do you not agree?

Ben Witherington said...

In a 'free' society we would have public programming about all sorts of religions and religious subjects without this sort of censorship. What would dictate the programming would simply be the response of the audience, not network 'codes'. But in fact we don't live in a free society. The Patriot Act makes that very clear. The networks are simply doing the same thing the government has been doing--- deciding what we can see and do.

Aureantes (aka Kagen Aurencz Zethmayr) said...

Personally, I'm inclined to see NBC's moves as trying to reach the most people in a general way, without promoting either any particular religion or cluster of religions (i.e., those which would quote the Old Testament incessantly to substantiate even the most universal of moral and ethical values. Saved, unsaved, it's all hot air and torch-brandishing -- how people treat each other is more important than in whose name or with whose words they happen to do it. With Veggie Tales, I can surmise that they were trying to reach a broader audience for the material itself, regardless of the faith or lack thereof -- with Madonna, even though I personally tend to think she's a pretentious flake, the valid conflict going on here is whether NBC should allow her to make a humanitarian point while utilizing a religiously-vested tableau. The concept of crucifixion of the innocent, though, is larger than the Christian mythos/dogma from which it arose, and so more people are likely to see the symbolic level of what is being meant than are likely to take as being an attack on Christianity. Honestly, the most it could technically be is a misappropriation, and that presupposes that Christianity's events can be said to "belong" to a particular group instead of being, as Pope Benedict commented, an essential part of European heritage--and therefore its mental/emotional language as well.

My fiancee comments via IM, btw, that the AFA and its ilk can have their Veggie Tales pristinely uncut once they stop trying to dictate the terms of other people's artistic expression. They can't have their cake and eat it too, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander. (end of proverbial insert)

All in all, I think NBC is doing a commendable job so far of trying to keep the peace and not try to impose anything religiously-partisan upon its viewers. That doesn't mean expunging material, but making sure that that material is not a dictation of belief to those who may not share it.

debbiewimmers said...

I think Madonna's scene on the cross is a put-down and a mockery for Christians. 'The Passion of the Christ' was superbly done even with the trumatic scenes of the whipping and the actual nailing. Even with Mel's fiasco with alcohol recently, the Passion was the best presentation of the Gospel

preacherman said...

Excellent post.
My current post is on this topic.
I woke up this morning. Let the kids pick what they wanted to watch as far as Saturday morning cartoons and came across Veggie Tales on NBC. I thought this is great.
They cut the first and last off and changed the ending. It said, "Thanks for stoppin by our house" instead of "God made you special and he loves you very much. bye." Every single reference to God was cut from the show and no scritpure at all. I don't undersand why this keeps happening when 75% of the country still claim Christianity as their religion.
If an Athiest, Muslim, Jew gets offened then tell them to do what they tell us..."Don't watch it."
I know I am not going to let my kids watch veggie tales, 1,2,3 Pengiuns, and Adventures of Lary boy on NBC ever again.