Pre-emptive censorship is a cross we all bear

London Underground has banned posters for the play Fat Christ, just in case they cause offence. This safety-first attitude is crucifying free speech.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

There is no undisputed depiction of Jesus, who in the past has been portrayed variously as black, Chinese, alien and gay. Over the years, unconventional representations of Christ and far-flung speculations about his true identity have attracted the ire of the devout and the sensitive. The latest depiction of Jesus to be deemed offensive is the promotional poster for Fat Christ, Gavin Davis’ comedic play, which opened in London last night. The poster was refused advertising spots on the London Underground. Perhaps suggesting that Jesus suffered from slow metabolism or indulged in fatty food is the ultimate form of blasphemy these days, when obesity is seen as a mortal sin.

Fat Christ is the story of Jack Taylor, a chubby man looking for his big break in life. His endeavours so far have left him and his pregnant wife so poor that he has to support them by cleaning windows. Jack makes a deal with a top London art dealer to crucify himself. The promotional poster shows Jack tied to a wooden cross, wearing pink-striped boxer shorts and sporting a beer belly. A trickle of fake blood is running down his check and he has a sullen look on his face.

Davis’ play doesn’t seem to make any serious claims about the way Jesus led his life – it’s about a chubby loser-type who ends up portraying Jesus. Other, more notorious cases of ‘Jesus controversies’ involve claims about Christ himself. A well-known example is Dan Brown’s smash hit novel The Da Vinci Code, which claimed Jesus was really just a regular human being who married and had non-immaculately conceived kids with Mary Magdalene. This row was topped in 2005, when the BBC televised the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera, in which Jesus appears as a singing talkshow guest. The BBC received 55,000 complaints from a wide spectrum of Christians, censorious media watchdogs, sensitive souls and upholders of politically correct standards. Then there was the ‘Mullet Jesus’ t-shirt, showing Christ with a bad haircut, and, of course, Cosimo Cavallaro’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, a nude statue made out of chocolate, which was removed from The Lab Gallery in Manhattan last year.

Poster for Fat Christ
(King’s Head Theatre)

It is not just ‘cranky Christians’ who are upset by fantastical and playful representations of the Son of God. Others, who believe we all have the right to be protected from offence, come out in their support, even on their behalf. This was the case with the Fat Christ poster, as officials at Transport for London (TfL), which is apparently committed to avoiding offending members of the public, stopped it from being viewed by commuters.

But what exactly did TfL see as potentially offensive in a comic image of a chubby man tied to a cross? Today, when the mullet is unfortunately back in fashion and when it’s broadly considered rude to claim that being compared to blacks, gays or Chinese (and, in some circles, aliens) is an insult, what counts as really unacceptable when it comes to portraying Jesus Christ?

Well, the promoters of Fat Christ, who applied for five advertising spots in just one underground station, found out that drawing parallels between Jesus and unhealthy lifestyles is beyond the pale. Davis has said that the poster accurately reflects his play’s content and theme and that he doesn’t believe it to be blasphemous. Didn’t he realise that simultaneously evoking the images of Jesus and all those anti-social slobs who are dragging down the National Health Service, supporting ‘evil’ fast-food outlets and fuelling the food industry’s carbon footprint is pure sacrilege?

Perhaps if Davis chooses to do a follow-up play that is less offensive to TfL officials, he could have Jack Taylor look to Jesus for inspiration on how to lose weight. That is what Don Colbert, a Florida doctor, has done. Apparently concerned about the ‘obesity epidemic’ in the US, he advocated the ‘Jesus diet’ in his bestselling book What Would Jesus Eat?. We’re told that Jesus was primarily into ‘natural foods in their natural states – lots of vegetables, especially beans and lentils…He would have eaten wheat bread, a lot of fruit, drunk a lot of water and also red wine…And he would only eat meat on special occasions.’ (1) Anyway, who needs fast food when you’re able to feed thousands of hungry people with just five loaves of bread and two fish?

As for now, TfL has decided that the public does not share Davis’ sense of humour and so it took a precautionary measure, a pre-emptive strike against hurt feelings. As a TfL spokesman said: ‘Millions of people travel on the London Underground each day and they have no choice but to view whatever adverts are posted there… We have to take account of every passenger and endeavour not to cause offence in the advertising we display.’ (2) In other words, the TfL officials censored the Fat Christ poster in accordance with the contemporary commandment ‘thou shalt not potentially offend anybody, anywhere – ever’.

spiked has on several occasions criticised the prevailing ‘tyranny of the minority’, where it is now enough for a handful of individuals – sometimes even just one person – to cry offence in order for official guardians of etiquette to ban ads, posters and television shows (3). But the Underground ban of the Fat Christ poster displayed the tyranny of no one. Here, no complaint was necessary for TfL to decide that people would be offended before they even had been offended.

This pre-emptive censorship in the name of protecting the public is a worrying display of restriction on artistic expression. And it’s not just quirky, fringe theatre plays that get such a treatment. Earlier this month, London Underground refused to allow a poster for a Royal Academy of Arts show on the sixteenth-century German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. It showed the artist’s nude painting of Venus. London Underground justified the ban in exactly the same terms as its decision to censor the Fat Christ poster (4), and argued that the poster breached guidelines barring advertisements which ‘depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context’ (5). Eventually, after widespread media coverage ridiculing the decision, TfL admitted it had made a mistake and retracted the ban.

So far, Fat Christ hasn’t been so lucky. But wouldn’t Jesus have agreed that a bunch of TfL chiefs censoring comical and artistic posters in the name of no one is not really kosher?

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill revealed the prudishness of the Advertising Standards Authority and how advertising is a free-speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Shirley Dent looked at the row over ‘chocolate Jesus’. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) Americans look to Jesus for diet, BBC News, 23 May 2005

(2) Tube ban for Christ play poster”, BBC News, 24 February

(3) See for example Tyranny of the individual, by Alex Hochuli; Slamming the lid on free expression, by Nathalie Rothschild; and Advertising is a free speech issue, by Brendan O’Neill.

(4) Venus banned from London’s underworld, the Guardian, 13 February 2008

(5) Poster of Venus isn’t ‘overtly sexual,’ will be shown on the Tube after all, The National Post (Canada), 19 February

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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