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.

You may also like...

No Responses

  1. ChrisK says:

    I so much agree with the philosophy behind this essay.
    Of course there is a place in the world–a Godly place–for humor. I believe that God must have a sense of humor, and that part of the life abundant we are promised includes laughter. I believe that being able to create a leggo depiction of the last supper can be a aign of faith. That posting odd pictures of nuns in the Women’s restroom can done with honor at its core.

    I see the toy creations mentioned in Linda’s essay as examples of people combining a love of lightness, the delights of childhood, the power of nostalgia, and (likely) a respect for Catholicism; the Episcopal church; Nauvoo; and those courageous, energetic missionaries.

    I do think that as with so much of life, there are fuzzy lines that can be crossed, and I do believe that there is a reason to be upset with the Danish cartoons.

    As much as I love humor, and as much as I may push the envelope myself, I will also run the risk of being considered “too serious” by taking offence at some brands of “humor”. It isn’t hard to find humor that I find distasteful. Humor that is intended to belittle, to injure, to scandalize, and to truly blaspheme is not funny to me.

    I support the freedom of speech, and I do not believe that Denmark should appologize. I cannot at all comprehend how on earth anyone can decide that a violent response is appropriate.

    My American armchair psychologist analysis is that the reaction comes out of the same conditions that cause a person who is stressed out, tired, upset, and unstable to lash out in violence at something like an overfull garbage bin, or an untidy living room. It’s not a commensurate response, it’s a sign of deeper trouble.

    All that being said, I heard an Islamic American author Reza Aslan
    on NPR speaking about his own take on the cartoons. He was asked if they offended him as a Islamic man of Iranian descent. Not the cartoons, but the motive offends him. He feels strongly that the cartoons were created and published deliberately to antagonize European populations of Muslims. That they were done with malice and ill will at their core. There is no way to construe any underlying respect for Islam or Islamic people in these cartoons.

    Again, I believe in the freedom of speech. I believe in the power to believe so strongly that what another says is wrong and still defend his right to say it, though I draw my own lines around injurious speech and actions. It is true too that I have never lived in a country with a repression of the press.

    In the end, I feel strongly upset and disappointed in the Danish writers and publishers for creating these cartoons if they were, as Reza Aslan says, created to offend and degrade European Muslims. I also feel absolutely sure that a violent response in inappropriate.

    I will continue to delight in the lighter side of the serious. I will continue to chuckle about a family alternate version of the “footprints in the sand” poem in which you and Jesus are actually scooting along the beach, creating “butt prints in the sand”, but I when I laugh it is with a sincere love of Christ, and hoping that Jesus is scooting along with me rolling on the floor laughing too.

  2. Tona says:

    Linda, couldn’t you post us a picture of the rat?

  3. Mike says:

    “I love the notion of a religion comfortable enough with itself to take a joke. Or make a joke.”

    I immediately thought of J. Golden Kimball when I read that phrase. We obviously don’t have someone like that today–a public LDS figure who is also really funny in a way that is both sharp and biting but also genuinely appreciated by common Mormon folk.

    I think LDS today are pretty image conscious, probably arising from the missionary agenda. We laugh at ourselves when among ourselves, but we’re more careful to poke fun at ourselves among those not LDS.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You piqued my intrested and I followed the link to The Brick Testement After poking through it, I have to say this: I love the concept but I don’t love the execution. A Lego depiction of the Last Supper is cute. A Lego depiction of Adam and Eve concieving Cain and Able is not. And doesn’t having a little Lego God there to chastize Cain contradict the whole “they were cast out of His prescence” thing? And where does it put them on that strange “God has no body” concept so many Christian denomonations insist on?


  5. Deborah says:

    Linda wrote: “And why can I laugh at that [mechanical missionary rodent] but fume at the “I walked today where Joseph walked” paraphernalia?”

    I’m not in Utah much anymore, but when I visit Deseret Book, it’s always a bit of a shock to see rows of Book of Mormon action figures for sale.

    I, too, have no firm line for fun vs. fume. At the pioneer sesquicentennial celebration a few years ago, I proudly bought the “Utah Women Are Tough” t-shirt, complete with a photo of a pioneer woman standing with a pitchfork over an ox. I went to the celebration at Cougar Stadium — a musical extravaganza — and got caught up in the kitch of it all. My heritage. Wahoo! . . . and then the missionaries (_hundreds_ of them from the MTC) spilled onto the football field and began singing “Called to Serve.” Several people around me were in tears. Huh? In a different context, I suppose I would have been moved. But I had a hard time transitioning from “extravaganza!” mode to “time to feel the spirit mode.” Perhaps you dislike the key-chain because it is marketing a false spirituality while the kung-fu rodent is a bizarely entertaining “inside joke.”

  6. Barb says:

    For those of you who are serious minded, don’t read this post. Because I don’t want to see a string of how-can-you-be-so-frivolous posts responding to my comments.

    I’m with you Linda. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. If, in fact, these cartoonists were just being mean-spirited, then by all means, we should be up in arms say, “Bad, Bad, Bad”. But for all we know they were just making innocent fun – Let’s face it, haven’t we all seen some turbans that look a little like missiles? I think the crowds were just itching for an excuse to kick some European butt. (Also, I want to see a photo of the mice missionaries too.)

  7. Linda H K says:

    I’ll see what I can do about get Elder Rodent posted. As RS President, I’m very involved in the funeral of a dear friend, Ann Stone (whom some of you may know), but it might be just the occupational therapy I need.

  8. Jackie says:

    the manufacturer in Rhode Island with the potato head is not Playskool it is Hasbro FYI