Religious Liberty, Blasphemy, and a Forthcoming Movie

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One of the things that is fueling our current cultural turmoil is our failure to agree on what constitutes blasphemy. We have gotten to the point where everyone is reacting to everything else as though they were hearing blasphemous things being said, and they tear their robes and everything, but if you ask for a definition of blasphemy, that is, well . . . almost blasphemous also.

This ties in, obviously, with the theocratic case for freedom of speech that I have been wanting to make. All these things tie together.

Diana of the Ephesians

In the providence of God, the apostle Paul’s work in Ephesus concluded with a big riot. This was because he had been laboring so effectively in that city that it had put a dent in the manufacturing of idols, and so the merchants responded with fomenting some joint community action.

But when Demetrius spoke to the silversmiths, he actually represented Paul’s view fairly accurately.

“Moreover ye see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands.”

Acts 19:26 (KJV)

That is actually what Paul taught and believed. A few chapters earlier, when Paul and Barnabas headed off the attempt to worship them as though they were Zeus and Hermes, their way of describing idols was that they were “vanities.” The word they used denoted things that were useless, empty, fruitless.

“And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein”

Acts 14:15 (KJV)

Now if you set your filters at their finest setting, this point could be considered “blasphemy.” It is blasphemy in principle to say that some deity is no deity at all, but simply a block of wood.

But at the same time, there is a type of blasphemy that we are not to engage in, even if we are dealing with devils or false gods. Here is an example of that.

“And when Paul would have entered in unto the people, the disciples suffered him not. And certain of the chief of Asia, which were his friends, sent unto him, desiring him that he would not adventure himself into the theatre . . . For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess.” (Acts 19:30-31, 37)

Acts 19:30-31, 37 (KJV)

There are a number of things about this passage that are striking and interesting. First, a riot broke out because of the impact Paul was having on the religious life of the city. Second, there were pagan leaders of the city who were themselves religious officials (asiarchs) who requested that Paul not try to address the mob. Third, these pagan religious officials are described as friends of Paul. He was on good terms with them. And last, when the town clerk calmed the mob down, one of the things he was able to say is that these Christian messengers had not been blaspheming the goddess of Ephesus.

So what is the difference? A devout follower of Diana could certainly take it amiss if he heard a Christian say that she was a nullity, and that the worship of her was mere superstition. He would hear that as blasphemy. But even so, to make such a claim is part and parcel with the Christian message.

So that being the case, what was it that the apostles didn’t do? Well, they didn’t walk through the streets of Ephesus reviling Diana—saying for example that she was a slut and a whore. If some misguided Christian had been doing that, and had gotten punched in the mouth for his pains, it wouldn’t have been for the sake of the gospel.

Here’s another example. I remember one time when I was a little kid learning an extra verse from a song at Sunday School. The song was “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart.” The extra verse included the line, “And if the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack.” This kind of thing, of course, was very conducive to the carnal heart of a little Christian boy, and so this offending verse began to be sung around our home. Much to my astonishment, my father admonished me for it, and taught me that even the archangel Michael was more respectful of the devil than that.

“Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.”

Jude 9 (KJV)

Two Kinds of Blasphemy

So there is a kind of blasphemy that is sinful regardless of where it is aimed. Of course this is sinful when aimed at the holy things of God, but this kind of thing is also out of line if aimed anywhere else.

“For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.”

2 Pet. 2:18 (KJV)

“And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.”

Rev. 13:15 (KJV)

Would it be possible for a Christian to pick out some false god, some false religion, and cut loose with some vituperative trash talk? Yes, and that would be sinful. Scurrilous abuse is never fitting, even if you are directing it toward false gods.

But it is not scurrilous abuse to persuade thousands of people in Ephesus that they should be done with their occult practices (Acts 19:19), and that the idols they used to worship were impotent, vain, degrading, and vile. As said above, that comes with the territory.

So the town clerk was able to tell the Ephesian mob that Paul and his entourage were not blasphemers, even though the mob was in the theater, yelling as though they were blasphemers.

Our conclusion ought to be that mobs should not be placed in charge of the definition of the word scurrilous.

Why Bring All This Up?

Perhaps you have seen the announcement that work has begun on making Ride, Sally, Ride into a movie. The reason for bringing all of this up now is that the priests of America’s newest established religion are demanding that they be granted absolute control over the dictionary. Our current culture wars are battles over that dictionary. Understand that, and everything else follows.

They want to define boy and girl, true enough. But they also want to define hate, bigotry, holiness, guilt, identity, victim, and more. And by “more,” I mean every word in the dictionary, including and and the.

And so, naturally enough, they want to be the sole arbiters of what is defined as blasphemy. They want to be in charge of that because they want to be in charge of everything. But here I would like to repurpose an old song by Jonathan Edwards, no, not that one, because the lyrics seemed appropriate somehow.

. . . he can’t even run his own life,
I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine

Sunshine (Go Away Today)

So by their definition, this book was a blasphemous book, and the movie is going to be a blasphemous movie. They have been reacting to the book as though it were guilty of the most heinous crimes, and I made the foregoing distinctions between different kinds of blasphemy because they are going to want to say that the movie is even worse than the book.

But if the book and the movie are guilty of blasphemy, it will only be because they point out—in a cheeky and irreverent way—that the gods we are currently trying to worship are no gods at all. The gods of existentialism, in whose vaporous notions existence precedes essence, and where everyone can reinvent himself to his heart’s content, are gods that cannot deliver on their promises. The only reason reinvention of self seems to work so well initially is that in the outer darkness there is no resistance, nothing to push against.

Making up your own identity is, to use Van Til’s great phrase, integration downward into the void.

He is the Word. How could He not be Lord of the dictionary?

But Christians are servants of the Word, the Logos, the full expression of all that the Father intends. He is the Word. How could He not be Lord of the dictionary? And that means He defines the void, and in that void there is no blasphemy heard. That is because sound does not carry there.