“September 30th Is Blasphemy Day” By Jim Bennett (Updated: Dana Ellyn “responds”)

            Before I begin this week’s strident indictment of whatever and stuff, I think I should establish my expertise in the general subject matter, which is art.  I’m not one of those Philistines who says, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”  The arts are my consuming passion, and I spend every free moment immersed in the classics. My obsessive love for the works of C.M. Coolidge, for example, has become my raison d’être; I can name – from memory – every breed of dog that sits at that poker table.  And after years of scouring every tent-canopy sale in every Shopko parking lot within 500 miles, my personal art collection now boasts the most extensive assemblage of American Indian wolf tapestries, Robert Kinkaid knock-offs, and framed Dale Earnhardt memorial lithographs anywhere. 
            I think I’ve made my point. 
            While I, like you, had my life changed forever when Christo wrapped Berlin’s Reichstag building in polypropylene fabric, I find that most modern art is not nearly that lucid and relevant.  Case in point:  An exhibit opening Wednesday in Washington D.C.; it is part of something called “International Blasphemy Day.”  The idea is that artists and so-called “free-speech advocates” around the globe will stage exhibitions that mock and criticize all things religious.  The goal is to somehow promote freedom of expression through all the condemnation and ridicule.
            The work of painter Dana Ellyn will be featured at the D.C. observance.  In a Religion News Service article about Blasphemy Day, Ellyn told reporter Leanne Larmondin, “My point is not to offend, but I realize it can offend, because religion is such a polarizing topic.”  That’s an interesting statement, especially when we consider some of her work.
            I give you Dana Ellyn’s “Silly Rabbit, Myths Are for Kids.”  Jesus Christ, God the Son, is pictured dressed in an Easter Bunny costume with an egg beneath his chair.  A small girl is laughing at him. 
            “Bottled at the Source” is evidently supposed to mimic a booze label.  “Divine Wine” is the name of the product, and the Savior of all mankind is shown on the cross; angels float nearby, holding out empty bottles to be filled by the streams of blood that are spouting from His pierced side and hand. 
            In “Jesus Performs at Young Darwin’s Birthday Party,” the Lord of the Universe is in a clown suit levitating a few inches off the floor, dancing on a cloud for the young evolutionist’s amusement. 
            But Ellyn’s magnum opus is “Jesus Does His Nails.” Christ is seated, with His crucifixion spikes still protruding.  He is dabbing nail polish on the head of the nail that has been driven through His left hand. 
            I emailed some questions and observations to Dana Ellyn, but she didn’t respond.  I understand, of course.  If anyone knows how time-consuming it is to conceive predictable, hackneyed, sophomoric puns, it’s me.  And I only have to type mine; she, on the other hand, has got to get one of those palette thingies, cover it with color puddles, put on a smock and beret, and then paint hers.  So, I’ll just include a few of those questions here:

(See update after the column.  Dana stated she emailed a response promising to answer my questions once she received my email.  Though I didn’t receive it before posting the article, I have no reason to disbelieve her. A more charitable and gracious characterization would have been, “Dana Ellyn has yet to respond to my questions.” – Ed.)

            1. The article states, “Artist Dana Ellyn says her ‘Blasphemy’ paintings are a tongue-in-cheek expression of her lack of belief in God and religion.”  Isn’t your artwork actually an expression of your hostility toward religion rather than your lack of religious belief?
            2. The date of Blasphemy Day was specifically chosen to commemorate a Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of cartoons that were unfavorable toward Islam and Muhammad.  Muslims around the world rioted.  Yet I notice that you, like virtually all atheist artists I have encountered, express your disdain for religion by blaspheming Jesus almost exclusively.  I’ve looked at all your paintings, but nothing in your work is aimed at Islam.  Why do you and so many of your anti-religion colleagues give Islam a “free pass” but roast Christ mercilessly?  You’re afraid of Muslim reprisals, of course, and that’s just good sense.  But clearly you’re holding yourself out as an iconoclast, and your bold iconoclastic principles evaporate before you cross the threshold of the Mosque.
            3. Artists want to be seen as edgy rebels who do provocative work.  Yet the cost for that kind of street cred is public outrage, and you all invariably protest when subjected to such backlash.  Conversely, without the public outrage and backlash, you’ll never be seen as an edgy rebel who does provocative work.  Aren’t you caught in a vicious cycle?
            Anyhoo, friends, I think I’ll pass on International Blasphemy Day and just spend September 30th loving the Lord Jesus instead.  I pray you’ll join me.  To be honest, I’m really not much of an art connoisseur.  The way I see it, art died with Bob Ross anyway.  But as far as Jesus is concerned, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”


UPDATE:  Dana Ellyn responds (sort of):

Thank you for your posting. I did receive your email yesterday with all of your questions. And I did respond with the following email 10 minutes after I received your note (I initially requested the interview mid-afternoon on September 27.  I received this response from Dana almost a full day after sending my initial inquiry to her. Newspaper columnists have deadlines, Ma’am.  I’ll amend the post to reflect accordingly, however.  – Ed.) :
Dear Jim,
Thank you very much for your email. I can not tell you how much I appreciate your taking the time to write – and for the thoughtful nature of your questions. I welcome the opportunity to answer every question you have posed. As of yet, I haven’t responded to any of the 100 or so comments that are posted to the original article on the Religion News Service site. So thank you for compiling all of the issues/questions that have been raised and giving me a forum to answer.

I will sit down tonight and/or tomorrow and respond. I just wanted to get back to you quickly to let you know that I will be responding since it will take me a bit of time to answer your questions thoroughly.

My best,
Dana Ellyn

I spent several hours last night and this morning writing up very in depth answers to your questions – because I was so pleased at your willingness to discuss and have an open and honest dialogue. I am sorry to see that you already posted this article and didn’t wait for my response – nor did you acknowledge my honest intentions to respond. In fact, you say that I didn’t respond and go on with your continued assumptions and accusations claiming to know who I am and all that I stand for. (Again, at post time on Monday, I had waited what in journalism circles is considered a generous amount of time for a response.  When I didn’t receive one, I gave a truthful, accurate account of the situation as it stood.  You very well may have sent me a response “within 10 minutes,” but I didn’t receive it.  While I won’t apologize for the nature of the bid’ness, I do acknowledge that a more charitable and gracious characterization would have been, “Dana Ellyn has yet to respond to my questions.” – Ed.)

In brief, to treat this very serious topic of religion via a few short quotes from me and a handful of paintings I have created that are a very small subset of my entire body of work does not do either side of the conversation justice.  (I maintain that the “handful of paintings” I cited are thematically consistent with all your other works which address the same subject matter.  If you’ve done some other paintings which portray Jesus Christ in anything other than an insulting and, in my view, blasphemous manner, I’d love to see them.  Once I do, I will cheerfully withdraw my critical comments. – Ed.)

And as I responded to each and every one of your questions last night, I realized that if I was too brief it left much of my message up for too much potential misinterpretation.   (Hmmm.  Well, I encourage you to go ahead and send your responses to me anyway.  I won’t misinterpret them.  I have an Adderall prescription.  Logically speaking, it seems that the potential for misinterpretation is heighted, rather than mitigated, by withholding the clarifying responses you wrote.  I’m just sayin’… -Ed.)  To go to the necessary depth would mean me spending the majority of my time focusing on this topic and this topic alone. My atheist/agnostic views are not what define me or my art on the whole.  (Agreed, and I didn’t state otherwise.  The column, however, is devoted to your involvement in International Blasphemy Day, so naturally, my questions and my column will focus on that. – Ed.)

Now I see from your posting here that you are not as open to discussion as I had hoped from your email.  (Ahem.  Talk about “assumptions and accusations claiming to know who I am and all that I stand for”!   I’m as open as you please, but do as you see fit.  – Ed.)

I do not ‘disdain’ religion (as you suggested in your email question). (Uh, come on, Dana.  I mean, seriously.  That’s an almost laughably disingenuous statement.  -Ed.) I think religion has played a vital role in the course of human history. I do not practice any religion or believe in any god and I don’t have anything against those who do. To each his own. I would never tell someone “you are wrong to believe in god” or “you should not believe in god” or “you should stop believing in god”. But those questions are always directed to me in the reverse. (Always?  By whom?  – Ed.)  I do have the right to say “I disagree with you” and you can tell me the same in return.  (You certainly do, Dana.  Every right.  Nothing I have written to you or about this matter conflicts with that.  But the original concern remains unanswered by you:   My perception is that you, like the overwhelming majority of atheist artists, musicians, commentators, and writers I encounter, focus inordinately on mocking Christ, yet seemingly leave Islam and Muhammad alone for the most part.  I again encourage you to email the responses you wrote and set me straight.  – Ed.)

I wish you all well.
My best,

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  • jameswatkins  On September 28, 2009 at 09:29

    And I thought nothing could be tackier than “Chocolate Jesus” but Dana has lowered the bar even further. You, however, keep raising the Christian humor bar higher and higher. May your kind increase.

  • rpn b  On September 28, 2009 at 11:26

    I couldn’t agree more. Christianity ridiculed, mocked, and made fun of continuously. Christians are the brunt of all jokes and slants. I never hear anyone making fun of muslims or any other religion.

  • Stanton  On September 29, 2009 at 23:04

    Mr. Bennett:
    Your writing is pure entertainment for my brain. I enjoyed every word of it. But, I’m wondering. If these self-proclaimed athie-artistes were to begin an equal opportunity bashing of Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, and Earnhart, would it make Christians feel better? Wouldn’t it defeat the point? I think you might agree that they single out Christ for a reason. If we are all spirits at the core of our being, then somewhere in the deep recesses we hold an innate ability to truly discern evil from pure. Perhaps these other deities just don’t have the clout to disturb the soul of the truly evil. But, the one who could command them into the body of a pig and have them leap off a cliff to their own death, well, he sorta scares ’em a little. Ya think?

    • Jim Bennett  On September 29, 2009 at 23:43

      There is no doubt that Christ is singled out by them because he is truly God, as opposed to the false gods and prophets of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and NASCARism. That thought never leaves my mind and I have stated it in other, earlier writings.* But my purpose with this particular piece was to try to hold up a mirror in which they could see their own sad reflection. My hope is that by forcing them to reckon with their hypocrisy, their inconsistency, and the cowardly double standard they practice, they might somehow reckon with it, realize that there truly is, in fact, something about this Jesus, and then be led to seek the truth about the one they claim to disbelieve in.

      *Excerpt from a message earlier this year:
      Jesus is alive. After he went to that cross and died, he was buried, and he rose again. He is alive, and that will never change, despite humanity’s best efforts. While the dead, crucified body of Jesus was in the borrowed tomb, a tomb shut tight by an enormous rock, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees still were fearful. They approached Pilate and asked for more security. They wanted a seal upon the stone; they wanted guards posted outside. Matthew 27:65 tells us that Pilate said, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can” That’s exactly what they did — to no avail.
      The best efforts of men to keep Jesus down came to no avail. It failed then, it fails today, and it will always, always fail. They have not learned a single lesson from a daily defeat that started with an empty tomb and now has spanned two millennia: Relentlessly they conspire and calculate and strive, but arrogant humanity simply can’t wall Jesus up, and they can’t keep him down. No literal or figurative grave could ever hold onto Him. Today the impotent seals and ineffectual guards take different forms: Around the world now, they are the attacks by bloodthirsty terrorists and oppression by totalitarian regimes. Here in our land, they are found in the mocking of the godless academic, in the smirking slander of the Christ-hating journalist, in the blasphemies of depraved artists and entertainers. They take the form of twisted rulings handed down by judicial tyrants. Yes, today the useless seals and futile guards are found in legislation and policies conceived in the very pit of Hell by modern-day Pharaohs, Philistines and Pharisees. And the rebels gloat with self-satisfaction, congratulating one another for having finally shuttered up that troublesome Jesus. They bask in their fleeting delusion, only to have it abruptly shattered by laughter – the very laughter of the very God they so wrongly dismissed as “dead at last.” It’s same laughter recorded by the ancient psalmist with these words: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.”
      Yes, today those who make war with God are still rolling their rocks, installing their seals and posting their guards against the One who will not remain entombed. They continue digging a grave for the One who cannot stay buried. They fashion a crypt one day, a mausoleum the next, then an ossuary, then a sarcophagus. Their sepulchers and cemeteries and cineraria are but vacant vaults. They come to no avail. In fact, eventually it is always these very architects of futility, driven by their own diseased spirits, who succumb to death and the grave; like Haman hanging on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai, they go to the grave, they are judged by the One they sought to bury. They come to no avail.
      There is no heavenly laughter then, though. Indeed, God’s heart breaks – it is He who wants that none should perish. It is He who sent His only Son to die on a cross, to be buried, and to rise again on the third day, so that no grave would have victory and no death could sting, so that enemies who lay down their arms could defect and be given asylum, so that wayward orphans who ask could then be adopted, so that the guilty – and that is all of us – could have our death sentence served by none other than the judge Himself, and we are pardoned, our penalty paid in full. The empty tomb of the God the Son, that untenanted monument to resurrection power, testifies that no one need die and that all can be changed. The tomb’s unfilled mouth cries out that the same resurrection power that raised Jesus from the dead can raise anyone to eternal life who will turn to Him in repentance and receive Him by faith. That is true change. His work on the cross was complete and sufficient for our salvation – his unstoppable departure from the tomb proves his vibrant, limitless power over death and Hell.
      So blind are the enemies of Christ! For all their towering intellect and vast knowledge, a great and glaring irony is lost on them: They don’t see it, but it is the truth: By fighting so hard to oppose someone whose existence they deny, they are perhaps the most persuasive evidence that Jesus not only existed, but that He lives today and forever!
      Every new claim of Christ’s defeat is merely a continuation of the supreme triumph of the ages by this conquering but unconquerable Lord! In their self-deception the enemies of Jesus claim to slay Him, and in their fear and conceit they seek to seal him up and guard him and keep him down. But he is no coffin’s captive…because it was He himself who willingly, knowingly, and lovingly deposited Himself within. He is no victim of theirs: He was slain before the foundation of the world (1st Peter 1)! And He deliberately stepped into time through a virgin birth; at that moment, he began an unwavering and sinless march through the brevity of His earthly life, and every step had been choreographed by Him to culminate in a cross, a tomb, and a miraculous resurrection. He was and is in command. These are the words of God the Son, the unblemished lamb, who for His own purpose subjugated his boundless might so that his enemies could fulfill what ultimately was His own plan. He said, “I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”
      John Piper has written, “China was closed for forty years to the Western missionaries, but not because Jesus the government somehow managed to force Jesus into a tomb against his will and seal Him and His Word up in it. No. Jesus stepped in to the communist-created crypt, willingly and with purpose, all while firmly in command. And when they sealed it over with persecution and intimidation, HE saved 50 million Chinese from the inside—without Western missionaries. And when it was time, he pushed the stone away so we could see what he had done.
      “When it looks like he is buried for good, Jesus is doing something awesome in the dark. ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who scattered seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but he knows not how’ (Mark 4:26-27). The world thinks Jesus is out of the way. They think His Word is buried for good in the dust of irrelevant antiquity.
      “But Jesus is at work in the dark places: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). He let himself be buried—he who said ‘no one takes my life from me.’ He comes out in brilliant, glorious resurrection power whenever and wherever he so pleases, he who said, ‘I have power to take it again.’ And his hands will always be full of fruit made in the dark.
      “God loosed him from the pangs of death because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Jesus has his priesthood today “by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).
      For two thousand years His enemies and their plots have come to no avail. They can’t entomb him. They can’t hold him. They can’t tame him or silence him or limit him. Jesus is alive and utterly free to go and come wherever he pleases. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). All things were made through him and for him and he is absolutely supreme over all other powers (Colossians 1:16-17).
      Trust him and go with him, no matter what. You cannot lose in the end. Because he is risen! And this will never change.

  • Jason  On October 2, 2009 at 22:17

    I luv your writing. I dig it the most! I luv you. What does bloviating mean? Can I borrow your diktionare?

  • Ashley  On October 2, 2009 at 23:10

    John 15:18-25… We (Christians) have and will continue to get the brunt end of things for Christ’s sake. It is Biblical. Our calling is to be persistent in showing Christ in our lives so that one day, all the little things that each of us do will eventually trigger something within others. He knew He would be despised by the world. If this was the case while He was walking the earth physically, showing His perfection and miracles, it is exponentially more so nnow that people even question His existance. People will always come up with excuses and “reasons” why Jesus did not exist or wasn’t who He said He was. It is our duty to not be drug down by the discouragement of others, but to be there for eachother and to be diligent in being His hands and feet. Keep your heads up, brothers and sisters, and keep the faith!

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