A Christian cartoon controversy?

radford mcconell lib2Another cartoon controversy involving religion has popped up in the news. This time it involves an American educational institution (Radford University in Virginia) and a student-run Internet magazine (Whim). There's been no talk of censorship, according to administration officials, despite some protests from students. Another installment of the cartoon tilted "Christ On Campus" is supposed to be launched Friday by sophomore Christian Keesee. It's a cartoonist making fun of Jesus Christ, who is shown playing poker, in a sexual situation and punching a doubter in the face, among other things. This series of six cartoons published over course of a few months only recently generated any news coverage, and that's clearly because of the controversy over the cartoons portraying Muhammad.

An old friend of mine, Greg Esposito of the Roanoke Times (I knew Esposito from my 2004 summer internship at the Times' New River Valley bureau), picked up the story on Tuesday and followed it today with this:

Fans and critics of the "Christ on Campus" cartoon posted on Radford University's student Internet magazine can expect another installment of the version Friday -- uncensored.

A meeting Monday afternoon between RU Whim Executive Director Andrew Lent and university officials opened up a dialogue on the cartoon but left editorial control in the hands of students.

"I think that it went pretty well," he said. "There were some early tense moments but the tensions eased by the middle of the conversation. They never pushed for censorship. ... It's going to be business as usual, at least for now."

Compare Radford University's reaction to "Christ on Campus" with the administration reaction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when its student newspaper published the internationally controversial Muhammad cartoons. Daily Illini editor in chief Acton Gorton was suspended along with his opinion editor.

According to this report from Michigan State University's The State News, Gorton acted without consulting his editorial board. That's a big no-no in college newspapering. Whether the newspaper should have run the cartoons is a separate issue.

Publishing cartoons portraying Jesus Christ -- and even mocking him -- would typically receive little more than a bat of an eye from the mainstream news media. But in this case, an enterprising reporter can take what would be and probably should be a minor issue and use it to explore another angle of an international religious storm.

cartoonistMy big question for Esposito is whether this is even a story at all if the Muslims cartoon controversy isn't boiling over. Initially there seemed to be a possibility that the school's administration -- which provides funding for the magazine -- was considering censoring the toons, but that's not going to happen.

And that's a good thing. While I had trouble finding the cartoons funny (they're fairly sophomoric, written by a college sophomore who says his favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber), and some were fairly offensive, I do think they were an honest attempt by a student -- whose first name is ironically "Christian" -- to provide some social commentary on this small campus tucked away in the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia.

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