Offensive to Christians?
Andrew Masterson The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther (Picador 1998)
and The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther (Flamingo 2000)
A review by Greg Spearritt
(Reviewed November 2005)
Blasphemy is an impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things. It says so in that sacred Australian text, the Macquarie Dictionary.
A novel in which the main character is a violent junkie and drug dealer who believes himself to be the Son of God might therefore qualify as blasphemous. Especially when the text is laced with wry, humorous and decidedly impious references to Christian symbols and belief.
But allow me to set the scene.
Things are not easy for Joe Panther. He has (so he says) an inability to age and, indeed, to properly die. At the end of each previous incarnation he claims to have gone through the painful and wearying process of finding himself, yet again, among the lost and outcast and yet again thirty-three years of age. In the seedier streets of Melbourne (Perth in the second book), he tends to his flock on his daily rounds, meting out the sacrament of temporary oblivion and occasionally meting out his own violent version of judgement if he believes someone to be taking him down or trespassing on his beat. In the midst of earning his daily bread, Joe is thrust unwillingly into the role of detective as he encounters some particularly horrible crimes and some particularly compelling reasons (usually involving the police and his own security) to try to solve them.
The Weekend Australian described The Last Days as Seditious, seductive, repulsive, humorous, offensive to Christians and curiously entertaining. I have no quarrel with any of this, except to ask why these books might be offensive to Christians.
They can only be offensive, of course, if you read them. Author Andrew Masterson makes just this point when he tells the Weekend Australian, If you're offended by religious iconoclasm and bad jokes, buy some other novel.
What is it about blasphemy, then? The Macquarie Dictionary alludes to slander in its definition. I can understand that wilfully misrepresenting something such that its reputation might be impugned is not a good thing. But no-one is going to read The Last Days or The Second Coming believing that they depict a genuinely alternative view of things Christian. The protagonist is schizophrenic, after all.
Are Mastersons books iconoclastic? As far as I can see they have no serious intention of challenging the theological status quo. But there are things that I imagine might upset a Christian in these books, notably off-beat (or just plain off) ideas, such as those concerning the nature and divinity of Jesus and his relation to God the Father. It's important to remember that the orthodox versions of these ideas are icons. They stand for or point to something, but they are not that thing. Although such ideas or icons are products of human thinking in particular times, places and political contexts, they have unfortunately achieved the status for some Christians of Utterly and Eternally True. They’re set in cement and not to be tampered with, even in fiction and even in fun. Perhaps especially in fun.
Masterson does not treat such ideas with piety and reverence. However, if piety and reverence are the only options for responding to anything people declare sacred, independent thought and reform are not possible and Sea of Faith should not exist. Blasphemy, iconoclasm, irreverence: I see these as a duty. We owe it to ourselves and each other not to take ideas so seriously that we can no longer see them as ideas. History shows us that those who would elevate them to something more usually have power (and abuse of power) somewhere on the agenda.
Respect is a different matter. But we can respect people and their right to hold their beliefs without ceding our own right to explore and critique beliefs of all kinds. Blasphemy and irreverence do not necessarily involve belittling, unless its belittling an unwarranted and potentially dangerous claim to power.
Long live Joe Panther, I say. But don’t read these books for their critique, if that’s what it is, of Christian dogma. First and foremost they’re amusing, if rather black, who-dunnits.
Andrew Masterson, by the way, won the Ned Kelly Crime Award for Best First Novel with The Last Days and the Ned Kelly award for Best Fiction for The Second Coming.