When French fundamentalists attack

The photographic image accompanying this post is not the work of Andres Serrano with which newspaper readers would almost certainly be familiar. However, I cannot seem to convince myself that I need to put a copy of that infamous work of modern religious or anti-religious art on this website on Good Friday. Sue me. However, as you will see, this quiet picture of a nun -- entitled "The Church" -- is also at the heart of a Guardian story that serves as yet another perfect lesson in how not to use the word "fundamentalist" in a news report.

Here is the top of this hot-button story from the world of art, to provide some context:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an "anti-blasphemy" campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy's use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year. It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

Let's get one thing out of the way: The attack was illegal and, while the work offends a great many people (including me), in a free society the solution to disputes about private (as opposed to tax-payer funded) art is supposed to be more freedom for other artists, not violence. That said, I would say that some protesters at this exhibit -- not the attackers -- were onto something when they muttered that the museum would not appreciate it if they offered to create a similar work of art by immersing a copy of the Koran or "The Diary of Anne Frank" in a container of urine.

However, the journalistic point for me is, once again, the use of a doctrinal label from Protestantism in the context of a dispute between a liberal, sort-of-Catholic artist (see this 1991 interview with Serrano) and other Catholics who are offended by some of his work. What precisely is a "French Catholic fundamentalist"?

Another point: What do journalists actually know about the doctrinal beliefs of the attackers, as opposed to the Catholic traditionalists behind the other protests? Do we know if there is a organizational link at work here? And if we are dealing with violent Catholics offended by the profaned image of the crucifix, why attack this other image of the nun (other than the identity of its creator)? What, precisely, is the doctrine at work here?

One more time, for the record, here is the Associated Press Stylebook's wisdom on when to use and when not to use the loaded "fundamentalist" label, which has turned into a meaningless linguistic club with which to pound a wide variety of believers (not just Protestants who hold the doctrines linked to the term):

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Then again, perhaps the journalists behind this report simply could control themselves as they did their work. After all, the online version of this article now ends with the following oh-so-sweet correction. Folks, you just can't make this up:

This article was amended on 19 April 2011. The original referred to the Senator Jesse Helms as Jesse James. This has been corrected.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

IMAGE: Andres Serrano, The Church (Soeur Jeanne Myriam, Paris), 1991

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