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Posts for March, 2010

No Corpus Christi in Texas

Timothy Kincaid

March 27th, 2010

corpus christiIn 1997, playwright Terrence McNally wrote Corpus Christi. The play is a Christ tale, not intended to revise the historical and theological Jesus, but to present a parallel adapted to a more current time wherein Joshua, the Christ figure, and his disciples confront societal rejection and internal conflicts in ways that are reminiscent of, but not identical to, those recorded in the Gospels.

Christ tales are not uncommon. Nor do they generally generate controversy. For example, while C.S. Lewis denied that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an allegory (smart him), it is clearly a Christ tale, and one which has come to be revered by Christians of all denominations. When the Waldon/Disney film was released in 2005, religious reviewers praised the production and churches organized viewings.

But McNally introduced one element in his tale that has resulted in protests, death threats, and even a fatwa. While Christians could handle an animal Christ figure, they were horrified that McNally’s Joshua and his disciples are gay. And they have fought nearly every production of the play.

Corpus Christi (latin for “body of Christ”) is set in the 1950s in the Texas town where McNally was raised, Corpus Christi. So it is only fitting that the latest flap over the play come from Tarleton State University in Texas.

In Tarleton’s advance directing course, students each select a play and produce an abbreviated workshop production. John Jordan Otte, a gay Christian, selected McNally’s play. And the Earth went spinning off it’s orbit, the stars crashed from the sky, and the seas rose up and drowned millions. Or so you would think from the public reaction.

In came the letters and the demands that the school ban this student from blaspheming. Protests were organized and the president of the university wrote an op-ed to both denounce the play and express its limitations (Star Telegram):

The university does not endorse the play.

The play is not a university-sponsored production in the Fine Arts series at Tarleton.

The play is a project for a class. It is not intended for the public any more than a student’s math assignment.

The performance is part of the student’s project. It is not open to the general public. The audience includes only the class members and relatives invited to attend.

The play is a class assignment in an advanced directing course. Students were allowed to pick any play to produce an abbreviated workshop performance.

Direct costs associated with the production are paid for by the student director.

The actors are volunteers, and no student is required to be in the play.

Any student in the class who finds the material objectionable will not be required to attend.

President Dottavio called the play “offensive, crude and irreverent” and said it had “no artistic or redeeming quality”. He mad it clear that were it not for that pesky First Amendment, he’d put an end to it. And to further discourage viewing, the production was rescheduled and attendance was restricted.

The production called “Corpus Christi” was to be performed, at the school in Stephenville, at 4 p.m. Saturday.

A news release provided Thursday to The Associated Press says the student-produced play will now start at 8 a.m. Saturday. A private audience of invited guests and relatives of the cast will be the only people allowed to watch the play, the school said.

But that was not adequate for the Lieutenant Governor, who apparently is a complete idiot. David Dewhurst, running for re-election, weighed in (Dallas Morning News)

Says Dewhurst in a statement: “Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.”

And is seems that censorship ruled the day. Last night, the school released the following statement:

The four student-directed plays, including “Corpus Christi,” scheduled to be performed at Tarleton State University on Saturday, March 27, 2010, have been canceled this evening by the professor. The professor cited safety and security concerns for the students as well as the need to maintain an orderly academic environment as reasons for canceling the plays. The performance of these four class plays will not be rescheduled.

This is sad for the students, infuriating for those who love liberty, and embarrassing for Texans who are trying to live beyond the stereotype of “good ol’ boy”. But there is little doubt that ‘God fearing, Bible believing Christians’ are celebrating their victory over the homosexual agenda.

Which is both ironic and fitting.

I am certain that few who complained about the production have seen it. I have.

My church hosted a bare-set production a few years ago. Having heard that it was sacrilegious and blasphemous and disrespectful, I was a bit hesitant about what I was going to see. But what I found was a presentation that did not seek to mock or demean the Christian faith, but rather to make it relevant.

The play removes the Christ story from its distant setting, its forgotten political/religious squabbles, and a culture that is foreign both in place and thinking. It takes the focus off of the trapping of the story and looks at what happens when the outcast challenges the religious structure. It was a touching, thought provoking, and intensely spiritual journey that left me with a greater respect for the life and message of Christ.

So it is ironic that Christian folk are up in arms at a play that inspires and deepens faith. But, considering that it also challenges where we each fit in the oppressed/oppressor dynamic and asks us to step outside our presumptions and dogma and look at what Christ represents, it is only fitting that churches should find it so threatening. And the response of the authorities illustrates the current relevance of Corpus Christi.