Curiosity or tolerance?

Observations on art and religion

This year Edinburgh was billed "the religion fringe", with a number of plays and comedies dealing with one of the big issues of our time. In recent years the relationship between the arts and religion has been difficult, with disputes over Jerry Springer: the opera and Behzti, when Christians and Sikhs objected respectively to the content of those productions. Perhaps surprisingly, the dominant attitude at the fringe has been one of fascination rather than hostility.

In the strikingly titled We Don't Know Shi'ite, a group of young performers set out in a series of sketches to challenge the audience's and their own preconceptions about Islam. While the focus was on the myths and prejudices thrown up by the "war on terror", it was striking that the group showed none of the scepticism about religion one might expect from young people describing themselves as secular humanists.

Indeed, their attitude might even be considered naive. For example, Muslim attitudes to women and homosexuality were smoothed over, justifications taken at face value. This generosity may be a useful corrective to the sweeping criticism that sometimes prevails, but the group's anxiety not to offend suggested a surprising ambivalence about the value of artistic expression.

Shows dealing with Christianity tended to be more irreverent, with names along the lines of Jesus: the Guantanamo years. But apart from its US-style "fundamentalist" variants, established religion was treated as an object of curiosity rather than as something to be confronted. In the comic play Man and God, the deity was portrayed as a hopeless old duffer whose authority has been undermined since the Crusades, and whose attempts to reassert himself with the aid of spin-doctors accelerate his decline.

Robbed of authority over our lives, religion has long been seen in the arts world as a dangerous illusion or as a mere cultural resource, a global collection of stories and metaphors. Hence, the notion of "the religion fringe".

The most intriguing production extended this curiosity even to the Middle American evangelicals who are so widely disdained on the secular left. In Particularly in the Heartland, the young New York group The Team (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) portrays three Kansas children whose parents have disappeared, apparently taken by the "rapture". The children are joined by the ghost of Bobby Kennedy, who stands in for the thwarted promise of a better America. But it is the kids who give us hope with their wide-eyed credulity. Rather than asking, as did the cultural critic Thomas Frank, "What's the matter with Kansas?", the group finds something universal in the hopes of the children brought up in the heartland of Bush's America.

The humanist cliché is that we can find sustenance in arts rather than naive belief systems, but the reality is more often that we consume culture like anything else. At their best, the arts can still point to something beyond, not by embracing religion on its own terms, but by exploring what it is about it that fascinates people. That is no bad thing. Indeed, religious prejudice is more likely to be challenged by serious engagement than lazy satire.