Church billboard in increasingly secular New Zealand causes controversy

By Karla Adam
washington post foreign service
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; A09

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND -- The Christmas season in sun-kissed New Zealand is normally a chilled-out, festive time more likely to involve beaches and barbecues than robust debates on the story of Jesus's birth.

But this year, many here are caught up in the latter (on the beach and around the barbecue, of course), because of a billboard outside St. Matthew-in-the-City, a towering neo-gothic Anglican church on a bustling street in downtown Auckland.

The poster features Mary and Joseph in bed and apparently naked under the sheets. Joseph looks dejected, while Mary gazes sadly toward the heavens.

The caption reads: "Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow."

The church insists that the billboard is an attempt to spark a discussion about faith in an increasingly secular nation. Some say it has at least prompted a laugh or two.

"I think it's brilliant," Lesley Underwood, 60, a customer service representative, said in an interview next to the defaced billboard. She called it "humorous" and "very much a conversation piece in the city."

Many others disagree, saying it is jarring -- if not deeply offensive.

Five hours after the billboard was installed last week, a protester splashed brown paint on the fresco-style image. Overnight it was stolen. Its replacement was slashed with a knife and later stolen.

"If you are a Christian, it's probably too close to the bone," said Gavin Wong, 27, a mathematician from Auckland, adding that his roommate was surprised that the church, not pranksters, had put up the billboard. "What is religion if you don't believe in the supernatural? If you start to question that, what else do you question?"

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said the poster was intended to challenge stereotypes about the virgin birth. His church believes that Jesus had two human parents and was conceived naturally.

"We wanted to say to people who are on the margins: If you want to find out about God and Jesus, you don't have to hang up your brain, you don't have to believe in supernatural things. There are Christians who don't believe God is a being in the sky who directs traffic on Earth," Cardy said in an interview.

Cardy conceded that the poster has angered many Christians in the country, including those who believe the literal interpretation of the Bible that an angel appeared before Mary and told her that she would give birth to a child who was the son of God.

"To make Joseph look like some kind of wimp or inadequate is so derisive and disrespectful, it's beyond belief," said Lyndsay Freer, a spokeswoman for the Auckland Catholic Diocese. "To believers, it's blasphemous."

New Zealand is one of the world's most secular countries, and the number of nonbelievers has been growing in recent years. In the 2006 census, 31 percent of respondents -- 1.3 million Kiwis -- said they had no religion, compared with 27 percent in 2001. The prime minister, John Key, has said he is "not a heavy believer," while his predecessor, Helen Clark, has described herself as agnostic.

Over the next couple of months, atheist campaigners plan to run advertisements on the sides of buses that read: "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The campaign, which began in Britain, will feature on 24 buses in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, the three largest cities in New Zealand.

Jim Veitch, an expert on religion at the University of Victoria in Wellington, said New Zealanders started to turn away from mainstream religion in the 1960s. For those who do believe, he said, religion is a private affair.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly secular society, Cardy, the reverend, said engaging the larger population with topics such as the virgin birth requires a certain lightness of touch, a demonstration that you don't take yourself too seriously.

Cardy said he doesn't regret putting up the billboard -- and the ensuing debate.

"We knocked Santa off center stage," he said, "albeit for a day or two.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company