My wife and I left the program with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the young people from our congregation we had gone to support did a bang-up job. The acting and singing was superb. On that level we thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
On the other hand we were, to put it mildly, bemused by the mixed message we’d gotten. I, in particular, was having a hard time processing what we’d seen and heard because of my background. The musical would have been totally inappropriate in the culture and country in which I grew up. In fact, the believers I know in that land would have been highly offended. They would have considered the musical blasphemous.
The incident got me thinking about the whole concept of blasphemy. I tend to be a bit hyper-sensitive about blasphemy because the country where I grew up now has a blasphemy law. If you happen to say anything deemed disrespectful or derogatory about the prophet of the majority religion or its holy books, you can easily find yourself facing a long time in prison, if not worse. When you’ve got that kind of thing hanging over your head, you tend to watch what you say and who you say it to. Innocent expressions, to which Americans wouldn’t give a second thought, can have deadly consequences.
With that in mind, I didn’t quite know what to make of what we’d seen and heard. For starters, the musical seemed to compare the words of Jesus to those of philosophers throughout history. But in what sense? I wasn’t sure. At first it appeared to me that the musical was saying that Jesus was simply another one of many philosophers and was on a par with them. However, the more I thought about it, perhaps it was trying to convey the message that Jesus’ words and thoughts were superior to all others. After all, the cast acted out many of Jesus’ parables and quoted verbatim almost the entire sermon on the mount. Can something which proclaims Jesus’ teaching to that extent be blasphemous?
I’ll also admit that the name of the production made me acutely uncomfortable. It was “Godspell” an obvious take-off on “Gospel”. What threw me is that, in my mind the word “spell” is associated with magic. I wondered whether the author of the play was implying that the “good news” of Christ was equivalent to magic. It wasn’t until sometime afterwards that I learned the word “spell” is merely the Middle English word for “talk” or “speech”. (We apparently derived our word “Gospel” from the Middle English “Godspell”.) It was only later that “spell” came to mean “words of power” and was associated with magic. Is it possible that the author of the musical was simply looking for a clever way to say, “This is God’s word”? Was he trying to say, “These are God’s powerful words”? Perhaps it was the author’s way of restating Hebrews 1:3? With the connotations the word “spell” has these days, the title may be in poor taste (I had assumed it was a pun), but I can’t really say that it’s blasphemous.
What is blasphemy, anyway? We usually think of blasphemy as speech which is directed against God. To be sure, the Bible does define it this way. It is speech which mocks, insults or reviles. It’s helpful to me to think of blasphemy as the opposite of confession. The core idea of confession is saying the same thing as God. For example, when we confess our sins, it is not just acknowledging that we did something contrary to God’s expectations, or that we didn’t live up to His expectations. Confessing sin really means that we say the same thing about our sin as God does. Similarly, when we confess Christ, we say the same thing about Him as God does. In contrast, blasphemy is a deliberate misstatement or misrepresentation of God’s character or words.
However, blasphemous words may only be a symptom of the real problem. While the Bible does associate words with blasphemy, it also gives another definition. Numbers 15:30 defines blasphemy as sinning defiantly. In Ezekiel 20:27 God defines blasphemy as forsaking Him or being unfaithful to Him. Romans 2:23-24 associates blasphemy with breaking the Law.
With that in mind, I have to ask who is most guilty of blasphemy – the person who uses God’s name in casual cuss words, or those of us who call ourselves by Christ’s name yet still have a worldly lifestyle? Is it a musical that portrays the sermon on the mount which is blasphemous or we who refuse to do what the sermon tells us we ought? Something to think about.