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?

salt-lake-mormon-temple1-thumb

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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8 comments for “The difference between bawdy and offensive

  1. Merrie Miller
    March 18, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    What a great blog, Gretchen! You have expressed our feelings just perfectly. I think we are a bit thinned skinned in these days of politically correctness but that doesn’t mean that we must accept insults to our deeply held religious beliefs.

    Our son, a conservative journalist who is not religious, said about the massacre in Paris,”What did they expect when they made fun of everything religious people held dear?” He added that he did not agree at all with what was done but he thought those doing the mocking should have been aware of the danger they put themselves into.

    Like you, I worry that I am becoming immune to certain ideas and words that would have made me cringe in past years but we need to have boundaries.

    • March 18, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Merrie. On a simply superficial level, those tickets cost a whole lot of money that I wish now we hadn’t shelled out. But maybe the lesson I learned was worth it. I want to be respectful of others’ religious beliefs (or non-religious beliefs), but I think I should expect them to be respectful of mine. It’s not going to happen, but a lot of us could work harder at it.

  2. Kent Atkinson
    March 18, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    Gretchen: Thank you for such an insightful blog. We have experience from our work together at St. Marys. How else could a Baptist preacher work for/with a Catholic Nun for such a long time. I have the same feeling about the bawdy/offensive. I know we need to keep an open mind but not so open that our brains and convictions fall out. Keep up the good work to share with those of us who are so retired we don’t have to think anymore.

    • March 18, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      I like your metaphor, Kent, about our brains falling out. Yes, it is as though we are adolescents again just going along with the crowd to win approval or, at least, be accepted in order to be part of the crowd. It’s much harder, as you well know, to stand up against the prevailing opinions of the world or, at least, walk out on them. Thanks for writing.

  3. Janice Minardi
    March 18, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Hi Gretchen,

    I didn’t see The Book of Mormon and was glad to see your take on it.

    Our friend Tom and had mentioned it yesterday so I forwarded your post. You may be interested in his comment:

    “I can understand what Gretchen is saying, but it is too bad she didn’t stay until the end. She might have come out of the theater with a different view of the show. Were all the f-words necessary? Probably not, but like it or not these are staples of 20-something humor. Why Uganda? Well, the show presented to a lot of people who don’t read newspapers some of the horrible things that go on there. Why can they make fun of Mormons but not Moslems? Perhaps because they feel that Mormons are confident enough in their beliefs and their approach to religion that having their idiosyncrasies exploited for humor is something they can live with if not enjoy. Also, maybe Mormons would rather have the jokes made on stage than behind their backs. Of course, the desire to not get shot at would shape my selection of material if I were writing a show.”
    Thomas G. Kurtz
    http://www.math.wisc.edu/~kurtz/

    Thanks so much for your blog!

    Jan

    • March 18, 2015 at 10:01 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Jan. My objections were not to the “f” word per se. My objections were to the “f” word directed at God…and over and over and over again. As I mentioned, I am not easily offended and the “f” word doesn’t offend me. But when it is aimed at God, it is offensive to me.

  4. David Deutsch
    March 19, 2015 at 3:09 am

    In my Hollywood career, I was both a writer and a story executive searching for movie projects for the major studios and producers. I often reacted to films and novels with a similar vehemence to yours. I’m well aware that some media, politicians, moralists, and religious groups characterize the entertainment industry as callous when it comes to offending people. Many might be surprised that some people in the TV and film development process are offended by potential projects and decline to buy the film rights to certain books or screenplays. I can recall two prominent literary manuscripts I rejected, “The Satanic Verses” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” I was offended by both for different reasons that may have been exclusive to me. My belief is that any audience of one brings with him or her certain specific conditioning, tastes or sensibilities to a movie, play, or book. Personally, I don’t worry about offending God with poor literary choices or bad writing. I assume that God has a sense of humor and is amused by all human foolishness, and that cheap jokes or idiotic humor are not going to offend God. I like the Buddhist belief that you can only be offended if you choose to be offended. After all, another’s foolishness aimed at you, your family, or your god is the fool’s wasted energy, not yours. For you to waste time reacting to such matters is a waste of life. Such a perspective implies detachment, if not forgiveness. However, if you do find yourself “trapped” in a theater where you are offended, demeaned, infuriated, or disgusted by a production, it serves you to leave. Who wants to subject oneself to something toxic? (In 12-step programs they call this “leaving the room.”) I’ve walked out on many movies and plays. If the play has taken up 30 minutes of your precious life, why consent to let it consume two hours? I had a close friend, a famous director, who went to see the original production of “Gypsy” with Ethel Merman (he was sitting in her house seats); he was so offended that any musical would glorify a selfish, even monstrous stage mother that he and his wife got up and left during the show. For most people, a stage mother wouldn’t mean anything, but for a director who has endured the bad behavior of stage mothers, the idea of glorifying one was offensive. You, Gretchen, were courteous to wait till intermission to leave, but sometimes being kind to yourself trumps standard etiquette. Your reasons for bailing were good reasons for you, and that’s what counts. You aren’t benefitting anyone, including God, by staying in an unpleasant situation, trapped in a room, and bombarded by toxic ideas or speech any longer than you have to be. Your anecdotes were revealing, insightful, funny, and thought-provoking. And I am glad you got to experience Robin Williams and Joan Rivers close up. That was a gift you will long remember.

    • March 19, 2015 at 7:34 am

      Dave, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think of all my readers (and I’m not certain who all of them are), I was most concerned about what your reaction would be precisely because of your exposure to theatrical venues and people. But what you said was in reaction to my personal feelings and your respect for them. That means so much to me and I am grateful. Thanks for your specific vignettes that served to broaden our (my) thinking. I can always count on you for solid insight.

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