At 6.00a.m. on the day before Good Friday, ABC Radio’s Triple J breakfast team ran a competition in Melbourne’s Federation Square called Jesus, You’ve Got Talent. The idea was that contestants would come dressed up as Jesus (you can just imagine the array of badly-arranged bedsheets, old sandals, and improvised beards on display), and then perform their favourite party piece: juggling cats, yodelling the national anthem, or whatever.
Advertising for the event, if not so much the quest itself, created a bit of a stir — so much so that Triple J seemed to hurriedly remove any official reference to it from its own website. “Even for a non-Christian”, wrote Andrew Bolt in his blog, "this safe mockery of a faith which won’t hit back seems both tiresome and pathetically weak," adding on Good Friday, "Mocking Christ has not, in years, seemed this childish—even cowardly."
Outrage from some of those identifying themselves as Christian was often less moderately worded, with some violent rhetoric in the feedback sections of both websites appearing over the Easter weekend, perpetuating the prejudice of some, no doubt, that — even in the middle of a comedy festival — Christians have no sense of humour.
Feeling vaguely guilty for not being more upset or offended myself, I couldn’t help wondering, had the ‘second coming’ been scheduled for early morning April 5 at the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets, and Jesus was told by a well-meaning ABC radio producer to please take a number and fill out an entry form while waiting over there for his turn behind ukulele-playing Jesus — and, by the way, great costume! — what would he have listed as his show-stopper? It’s a bit like Abraham says in the parable from Luke’s gospel: if people don’t warm to Moses and the prophets, nor will they be impressed even if someone should rise from the dead.
One can imagine the scene: "Yes, Jesus number 28 — ok — you’ve got talent, clearly, but we were kind of looking for something else, thanks anyway. Next up, Jesus #29 and ‘The Disciples’, with a theatre-sports sketch based on ‘Thank God you’re here'".
Jesus was, of course, no stranger to the demand for signs—some demonstration of special ability. And on Maundy Thursday of all days we’re reminded of the fickle reception the works he did perform received at the hands of various sets of judges, works such as: pronouncing unlikely forgiveness; finding a place at table for the religiously, socially and thus economically outcast; challenging oppressive or self-serving readings of life-giving traditions; naming injustice; enabling the broken to find healing and wholeness— each an expression of his one great talent: communicating divine hospitality—a talent often regarded as blasphemous.
Insofar as the Church is gifted and charged with developing this same talent, does communicating divine hospitality extend to seeing the funny side (assuming, of course, that there is one) of Triple J’s talent quest, or of any of the religious jokes featured during the recent International Comedy Festival, which — according to Andrew Bolt — were made principally at Christianity’s expense? (Having seen Shappi Khorsandi’s Asylum Speaker, however, I’m not so sure.)
In the Church’s 'making room' for the other, is there not still a space for playful irreverence in the Town Common — traditionally that most therapeutic realm of the ‘carnivalesque’ where, especially on 'holy days', fools play the king, and death — above all — is ridiculed?
As Kenneth Craig explains in Reading Esther: A Case for the Literary Carnivalesque, following Rabelais and Bakhtin, "Carnivals are celebrated as a feast for all the world in the public square . . . [where] destruction and uncrowning are related to birth and renewal ... All the images of carnival are connected to the paradox of the dying and the reborn world." It would indeed be ironic if, in Eastertide, there were not just such a space.
The carnivalesque may appear to sit uncomfortably with Manning Clark’s sense of Australian religiosity as a "shy hope in the heart", or Gary Bouma’s notion of the "quietly spiritual" (see Paul Collins, Eureka Street Volume 17 No.8), but perhaps it is a corporate expression of precisely these impulses, made safe by the accoutrements of cynicism and satire, and with its own fully serious purposes. For Christians to deny it a place, then, whether through defensiveness or out of some no less tiresome or mocking "bread and circuses" disdain for popular culture, seems in its own way somehow comical.