Bishop Potato Head and the Cartoon Wars
I have a hard time understanding the chaos spinning because of the Muslim cartoons. Perhaps that’s because the First Amendment protects every insensitive US crackpot’s freedom to say whatever. I also live just blocks from the town of Skokie, IL, where, in the late 1970’s one out of every six Jewish citizens was a holocaust survivor or directly related to one. In 1978 the ACLU won a court case granting permission to Nazis to march through the town. In the end, the Nazis decided against marching, but such a case!
Religion, free speech and humor make for an odd mix. Take Buca di Beppos. This is a restaurant chain which advertises itself as “Southern Italian Cuisine.” It’s huge, tasty, family style portions are great, and I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. But the ambiance is an experience. What they call “Southern Italian” could easily be “Catholic Tacky.” The walls are covered with pictures of Catholica – nuns, priests, kids in first communion togs, saints, JFK, Marilyn Monroe (go figure). There is actually a room for large groups where in the center of the round table is a rotating plaster bust of the pope (John Paul II, I think). But the Catholics seem to be perfectly cool with it.
I also recall taking my son to begin his college career at Brown University. It was around the time Chicago had just had its magnificent public art “Cows on Parade.” (That preceded New York’s version, just to be clear.) Other cities were having similar versions of exotically painted fiberglass statues around town. I think Cincinnati had pigs and Miami had mermaids. Did Boston have cod?
In Providence, they turned to one of Rhode Island’s largest manufacturers, Playskool, and decided to have 6 foot tall Potato Heads for their image. Everywhere you turned there was a wacky Potato Head – covered in tiny mirrors, decoupaged with flowers, adorned with tulle and lace. My favorite one was outside the headquarters of the Episcopal Church. There was a magnificent archbishop Potato Head with a mitre and robes and all the accoutrements. Immediately I asked myself, “What do I know about the Episcopal Church, and, yes, do I want to know more!”
I don’t think our church is ready yet for a President Hinckley Potato Head on Temple Square, but I love the notion of a religion comfortable enough with itself to take a joke. Or make a joke.
When I was in Nauvoo the year of the temple dedication, I found myself surrounded by Mormon kitsch of every kind. Perhaps we are ready for some version of a Mormon Buca di Beppos. The problem is that I gag when I see that stuff. Imagine these: shot glasses with the Nauvoo temple, tiny little beer stein shaped toothpick holders with the temple on it; key chains with the motto “I walked today where Joseph walked” dangling a tiny plastic footprint with presumably authentic Nauvoo dirt inside, a golf ball with the Nauvoo Temple on it so you’ll know just where to smack that thing. I was so appalled at some of the items that I decided to buy them. I had to do a dance around the notion of supporting this industry, but I was determined to use my collection as a cautionary tale whenever I could against turning the sacred into schlock, or worse yet, blasphemy.
But, secretly, I kind of like one item in my Mormon Kitsch collection. It’s a mechanical rodent in missionary suit and name tag brandishing a Book of Mormon in one furry paw. If you press his foot he starts dancing to Kung Fu Fighter while the Book of Mormon spins like crazy. Why does this make me laugh? And why can I laugh at that but fume at the “I walked today where Joseph walked” paraphernalia?
Here’s another phenomenon I haven’t decided about. There are at least three hardbound volumes of “The Brick Testament” series. They’re scripture stories (Old Testament, New Testament, and the Christmas Story) created out of adapted Legos. Google them. Are they repulsive or genius? A great teaching tool for youngsters or an outrage?
Obviously I have some ambivalence about all of this. But one thing’s sure. I’m not going to torch anyone over it.