Don't ban The First Temptation of Christ, just don't watch it

Stephen McAlpine has written a post calling on Christians not to throw their Netflix subscription in the bin just yet. You can read it here.

You may wonder why Christian people might be considering doing that. It is in response to a new comedy programme hosted on the streaming service, The First Temptation of Christ. If you’re so inclined, you can read the Christian Institute view of it here. Naturally, they’re not very keen.

And, to be fair, they’re not wrong. It depicts Jesus as a drug-taking homosexual and mocks every aspect of the Christmas story at Christmas time. There just isn’t any other word for it than blasphemy. It is a flagrant, disrespectful mockery of Christ. And because of that, I shan’t be watching it.

But McAlpine calls us not to throw away our Netflix account altogether. And I agree with him. I think he makes some helpful points in his post. Particularly, he calls us away from the ‘cancel culture’ to which the world subscribes. He calls us away from cancelling our subscription because of this blasphemous programme we aren’t tempted to watch, but if we are going to cancel it, to do so ‘on the basis of the sexually explicit or gratuitously violent show you are tempted to watch or are even planning to watch this very evening.’

But I think there are three more things worth saying here. One pragmatic, one cultural, one political.

Pragmatic?

Let’s just ask the question: what is our end goal here? I presume those inclined to protest, cancel their subscription or write in are hoping that the programme will be removed. They hope by protesting the streaming service will take the programme down and others will not see the offensive blasphemy.

History tells me this rarely works. As Father Ted skewered brilliantly years ago, protests and campaigns waged against these things tend to have the very opposite effect.

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Far from stopping people from seeing the thing we want them to avoid, we draw more attention to it. This, in turn, tends to pique people’s interest. What could be so appalling that the church are taking this stand? I suppose we better go and check it out for ourselves! The episode of Father Ted ends with them being chewed out by their Bishop because they managed to make the blasphemous film the highest grossing one their island has ever seen!

In real life, just cast your mind back to The Life of Brian or The Last Temptation of Christ or any number of things the church hated. Never were the programmes or films removed and, in just about every case, it led to more publicity and a greater number of people watching. If for no other reason, pragmatically, these campaigns are counterproductive.

Cultural?

Others want to argue that the purpose is to register our disapproval. We don’t expect them to be cancelled really, we are just registering that we find the views being put abhorrent. We don’t want to sit idly by whilst our God, our Lord and saviour, is maligned and mocked this way.

Against that, I would argue that you would have to be a total cretin to think the church would be alright with it. You don’t have to know much about Christianity to know that a gay, sexually active, pot-smoking Jesus is not going to be well received by Christian people. Let’s be honest, that is precisely why the programme was made! If everybody already knows we think it is blasphemous – and the thing was made specifically because of that – do we really need to register our disapproval? Who genuinely believe we would approve?

‘Ah’, comes the reply, ‘But the Muslims would be offended by it too. In fact, if it were Mohammad, they would be making a big noise!’ No doubt that is true. But two things bear saying.

First, and sorry to state the obvious, we’re not Muslims. I’m entirely unclear what the Muslim reaction to something has to do with how Christians ought to react to blasphemy against their God. I don’t see the link here at all. There is a long and illustrious history of Christians specifically not responding to things in the way their Muslim neighbours might specifically because they are Christians. So, I’m not sure what the Muslim response really has to do with any sort of Christian one.

But, second, behind the question is really a sense of, ‘what would our Muslim friends think if we say nothing? Won’t it send a bad message to them?’ Certainly, they may not understand our doing or saying nothing. But in so doing, we send another fairly strong message. Namely, our God does not need our help to defend his honour. Yahweh is perfectly capable of defending himself and doesn’t need his followers to do his bidding. By contrast, Allah asks his followers to defend his name. You tell me which message makes their God seem greater?

Political?

Whether you’re still with me or not, perhaps this final point might land. As Christians we should be well aware of the problems associated with policing offence. Christians are frequently – and in these cases, entirely rightly – angry when people decide that reading the Bible in public, preaching the gospel, daring to utter views others don’t like are threatened with prohibition. Our standard defence against these things rests first on free speech and second on the view that, if you don’t like it, don’t listen. And we all sagely nod and add our ‘Amen!’

What, then, do we suppose will happen if we are successful here? Cancel the offensive programme, ban it, remove it because it offends us! Next time we are accused of offending people with the gospel we have no leg to stand on. We cannot defend our right to say what other people find offensive whilst, on the other hand, stopping people from saying what they want no matter how offensive we find it. It is not credible to defend gospel freedom whilst rejecting artistic freedom.

Now, you may argue that banning is a problem but you aren’t calling for that. You’re just choosing to boycott something you don’t like. And, of course, that is your prerogative. Given the earlier points I made, if you are going to do that, I would encourage you to do it quietly without a campaign. But that may well be cutting our nose off to spite our face. If we simply ignore the programme, and don’t give it the oxygen of publicity through our protests and twitter storms, chances are it will be watched about as widely as the average low-grade programme that isn’t very clever or interesting. And we – as Stephen McAlpine argues – can carry on enjoying the stuff that has much more artistic merit without letting it trouble us at all.

I know none of us want to be hypocrites. If we are concerned at the depiction of sin, we should be concerned about the depiction of sin in all the other stuff we watch and don’t campaign against. If we are inclined to ban or cancel this because it’s offensive, we should expect our gospel preaching and evangelism to be similarly banned and cancelled too. As Stephen McAlpine argues, we are better placed cancelling our Netflix subscription over the programmes that are tempting/causing us to sin rather than the ones that definitely aren’t.

Christians ought to stand against the cancel culture. The British knee-jerk reaction to most things we don’t like these days is to ban it. We are simply aping our culture should we call for the same.

The answer is not to ban it; it’s not to watch it. If we can’t bring ourselves to give Netflix money because they air such things, cancel your subscription quietly without drawing attention to something likely to cause others to seek it out. But as we do that, you better start boycotting an awful lot of other shops and services that do things we don’t like much too lest you buy into their ungodly shenanigans too. Unless we are planning a Good Life-style self-sufficient existence, my advice is don’t watch it.

Go and enjoy The Crown or something instead.