The difference between bawdy and offensive

I am not easily offended. I used to be, but I’ve grown a pretty thick skin over the years, sometimes, I think, to my own detriment. We don’t want to become so thick-skinned that we are oblivious to the needs and concerns of others. A thicker skin comes not only from being the object of someone else’s hateful or jealous pronouncements, but also from life experiences that harden us up a bit to protect us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (thank you, Shakespeare).

One of the most important traits a person can have is a good sense of humor. People have made fun of my booming laugh. I’ve always found that an odd thing to do when humor is so important. My dad had a booming laugh too that echoed through the halls and lobby of the Stockyards Exchange Building in St. Joseph, Mo. People always knew where he was because of that laugh.

In fact, one of the oddities of not being easily offended is that I was offended as I stood in the lobby of a local theatre waiting for the doors to open for a live Joan Rivers performance. A former congregant of mine approached and very loudly proclaimed that as a pastor I must not be aware of how bawdy the show would be. First, I thought, how stupid does he think I am? Second, I thought, well, I haven’t seen Joan Rivers in person before and I expect the show to be bawdy, but so what? And, finally, why is a pastor supposed to be different than anyone else?

It was bawdy. Joan Rivers was a bawdy comedienne. So was Robin Williams. And I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see both of them in person. I laughed with each one until I had to hold my sides. It made no difference to me that each one took pot shots at some of the things I believe or positions I have taken. It was funny, and I could laugh at myself because the ways they delivered those lines were all intended with good humor. Some of those pot shots came along religious lines. But I found those to be all right too, because both of these very funny people took aim at their own beliefs and foibles as well. That’s what makes a lot of what they said funny. We are, none of us, without specks and even logs in our own eyes. None of us is completely right about everything we believe or say. And having a sense of humor about it all makes us not only laugh at ourselves but reexamine what it is we do believe and how our beliefs fit into a much larger world.

Now, I have walked out of places and entertainment venues a few times in my life. The first time I can remember doing so was during the movie “Rosemary’s Baby.” I was 16-years-old at the time and probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. It was a double date and the other three young people in our group were very nice, very upstanding people. There came a scene which I can only remember as appearing to me to be something satanic impregnating Mia Farrow. It seemed we all got offended at the same time. We all got up and walked out. No questions asked of each other. I think the boys might have even gotten their money refunded. None of us spoke of it again. I never did see the end of that movie and I’ve never really wanted to. I was offended by it and, as a young person, it was probably a good thing that I was.

There’s an old expression that goes something like, “I’ve been thrown out of better places than this!” Indeed, I’ve walked out of better places than the theatre when I was a 16-year-old. And I’ve walked out of worse. But it’s not because I’m easily offended. It is because I don’t have a need to sit through or listen to a presentation or a conversation that I find personally offensive.

And, yes, I’ve walked out of churches during a sermon or two. Having given a lot of sermons I can honestly say that it wouldn’t have hurt me to stay and hear whatever few minutes were left. Then I could have easily left during a song or hymn when it wouldn’t have caused such a stir. Just because the preacher said things with which I vehemently disagreed was no reason for me to intrude upon the silence necessary for others to concentrate on what they wanted to hear.

If anything, I am for free speech. I’m a former and current journalist. Free speech is essential to freedom of thought and the development of it.

All of that brings me to the musical, “The Book of Mormon.” In the days leading up to seeing the national tour presentation of that last weekend, I grew more and more interested in seeing it. I heard people say it was hilarious. I heard some were seeing it book of mormon musicaltwo and three times because it was so funny. I was looking forward to laughing.

Indeed, it started out in a promising way. How many of us have spied the young men walking two-by-two through our neighborhoods dressed in white short-sleeved shirts and ties and carrying “The Book of Mormon” to share with anyone who might open a door to them? And how many of us have quietly hidden inside just waiting for them to go away? I have done it, I must confess. That door-ringing routine was the beginning of the musical and the young men were, indeed, not only hilarious but very talented singers and dancers.

But that’s where the hilarity ended for me. As the story quickly progressed, two of them found themselves on a mission in Uganda where the locals launched into a song repeatedly saying in their own language, “F-you, God.” (They didn’t abbreviate). It was all quite enjoyable until the language was translated into English and then it seemed to me to go on ad nauseum.

The audience loved it or seemed to. There was lots of laughter and great applause.

Now, I’ve been mad at God in my life. I’ve lashed out at God in my hurt, grief and anger. But this – well, this to me was the difference between bawdy and offensive.

I think I wasn’t offended for me personally or for my beliefs. I think I was offended for God.

Someone observed that the play poked fun at everyone. Indeed it did not. It did not poke fun at Allah, at Islam or Muslims. There were pokes at Jews, pokes at Christians in general, and, of course, pokes at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We are too politically correct to poke fun at Islam. And after the terrorist bombings of the magazine in Paris which had cartooned Muhammed, there will be less and less poking at Islam either out of fear or out of a desire to be politically correct.

But why, then, is it all right to poke fun at other religions? Have we become so hardened to the world, so slack about our own faith that we don’t care whenever someone makes crude remarks about God?


The Mormon Temple at Salt Lake City. Photo by Rick Satterfield.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has apparently taken all of this better than I have. In the playbill that outlined the cast and crew, there was a full page ad of a handsome African American man quoted as saying, “You’ve seen the play…now read The Book.” It had a picture of “The Book of Mormon” along with the church’s website, a QR code, and a number to text for more information. From what I’ve read, the main concern of the church has been that people would leave the play believing that Mormons are actually the way they are portrayed there.

We walked out. We waited for intermission, but we walked out. We were offended by the way the play spoke about God.

And, yes, I know that God lets that stuff roll off. But does God expect us to just let it roll off? I don’t think so.

Pope Francis, after the bombing in Paris, spoke to the issue. He said violence in the name of religion can never be excused, but that anybody who insults someone’s cherished beliefs shouldn’t be surprised if they get a “punch in the nose.” Using an analogy, the pope said if a dear friend were to utter “a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.

“There are so many people who speak badly about religions, who make fun of them… they are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to (my dear friend) if he says a word against my mother.”

As I have thought about the play, I have given thanks that I no longer hide when I see those young men coming down the street, two-by-two to share The Book of Mormon with me. I answer the door and I talk pleasantly with them. We all acknowledge that we have differences of opinion and we are respectful of one another. And then we part.

I learned through this play, a play that is tremendously successful and will continue to entertain thousands, that there is a difference between bawdy and offensive. I don’t need to sit there and listen to offensive things said or sung about my God.

It took the laughter out of the evening.

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