The Mellow Messiah
Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer, the illustrator behind a comic that depicts Jesus as a laid-back, binge-drinking surfer who hangs out with Jimi Hendrix, has been convicted of blasphemy in Greece and given a six month sentence in abstentia. Greek police have raided bookshops to seize copies of the comic book, The Life of Jesus. While Greek Church spokesman Monsignor Epiphanios said, "It is not permissible to mock holy and sacred things," adding, "Humor is out of place when it comes to such subjects."
The slim, 40-page volume on Jesus' life begins with the baby Jesus becoming addicted to the three wise men's frankincense. After the first of many sniffs, a light forms around the baby's head, which accompanies him for all his life. Throughout the book Jesus' miracles happen by sheer luck rather than divine intervention. The illustrations show Jesus surfing, instead of walking on water, and have him appearing at the last supper with a bong.
A group of artists gathered in Vienna in March to draw attention to the ban of Haderer's book. It's the first book Greece has banned in more than 20 years. Haderer said he didn't even know his book had been published in Greece until he received the court summons. He'll be appearing in a Greek court in April to appeal.
When first published in his native Austria in spring 2002, Haderer's book drew some controversy and protests from religious figures but wasn't banned. Austria's highest-ranking Roman Catholic bishop dubbed the comic, "a threat to democracy." Catholic schools in Austria have announced a boycott against the book's publishing house and even the Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schassel has publicly blasted the cartoons as "irreverent caricatures."
The German newspaper Die Welts says that "the question whether the New Testament can actually have a comic edition only stirs very orthodox Catholics, who'd like to issue a sort of Christian Fatwah on the artist."
Commenting on the decision by the Greek authorities, Haderer said, "Now we have really gone back to the Middle Ages. It didn't even get that far in Catholic Austria." Haderer stressed, "My book is not an attack on religion or on believers. It is meant for believers to take a more light-hearted look at their faith and through humor become closer to God."
The Life of Jesus has also been published in several countries including France, South Korea, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Germany, where Haderer is well-known for his weekly illustrations in the news magazine Stern. The book has sold more than 100,000 copies across Europe.
"It is unbelievable that a person can write a book in his home country and be condemned and threatened with imprisonment by another," said Nikki Conrad, a human rights expert. "But he is not going to just sit back and accept this injustice"
Haderer is prepared to take the issue to the European court of human rights. Meanwhile, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, the International Publishers' Association and the International Booksellers Federation have sent an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis expressing their dismay at Haderer's sentence and at the banning of The Life of Jesus.