A university’s promotion of an atheist student’s art display of a desecrated Bible and demonic images covering Jesus' face has sparked outrage from Christians who meet on campus for worship.
The University of Southern Maine has found itself embroiled in a controversy over the art piece called the “Unholy Bible: Very Revised Standard Edition.”
The piece was created by sophomore Riley Harris for an art class assignment requiring students to re-purpose a book and create something new.
Harris’ display consists of a Bible with torn pages that are painted orange to look like flames. According to The Kennebec Journal, satanic images cover the face of Christ in the display.
Harris told the Journal that the piece is supposed to symbolize challenges to religious authority.
“People question different types of authority, but for some reason, religious authority seems too taboo to question, so I thought I would give it a shot,” Harris told the newspaper.
The project was completed for a class and later put on display by the university in a building in which community organizations and religious groups rent space regularly.
One of those groups that meet in the building is the Casco Bay Church of Christ.
“This is someone’s sacred text being desecrated, destroyed and displayed in a public place,” church member Charlie Flynn told the news outlet. “I couldn’t help but feel no one’s sacred text should be treated that way. I think it’s very inappropriate and repugnant.”
Despite some Christians finding the display offensive, the school has stood by Harris on grounds that he has protected freedom of speech.
Jared Cash, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing, told CentralMaine.com that university policy dictates that the institution must support free speech as long as it does not “violate the law, defame specific individuals, genuinely threaten or harass others or violate privacy or confidentiality requirements or interests.”
“Academic freedom is the freedom to present and discuss all relevant matters in and beyond the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression, and to speak or write without any censorship, threat, restraint, or discipline by the university with regard to the pursuit of truth in the performance of one’s teaching, research, publishing or service obligation,” the policy reads.
The policy further states that “demands for civility and mutual respect will not be used to justify restricting the discussion or expression of ideas or speech that may be disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the university community.”
The display of Harris’ work of art also drew the ire of Christian conservative pundit Todd Starnes.
"He actually ripped pages out of the Bible and painted them to look like flames from the lake of fire,” Starnes told CBN News. “Then he took portraits and paintings of Christ and in place of the face of Jesus, he placed a satanic image. You can actually see the Nativity scene with Mary cradling the Christ child and there is an evil satanic face on the Christ child.”
Despite understanding the rights of free speech, Flynn still considers Harris’ piece hateful.
“If I saw a Quran with pig blood on it I would certainly call someone — or a Torah with unclean foods on it,” Flynn was quoted as saying. “This is a Bible with Satan’s image put over Jesus’ image and around Christmastime. I don’t understand why that would be viewable in an institution of higher learning. This is USM, a school that services the community.”
Starnes said that it would be “improbable” to see a school like the University of Southern Maine display a desecrated Quran or satanic images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
“Here in the United States of America, only Christians and Jews are allowed to be attacked for their religious beliefs,” Starnes argued.
The display also drew an objection from the evangelical grassroots organization My Faith Votes.
“This is sad,” a Facebook post from the organization reads. “It seems here in the U.S., Jews and Christians can be attacked for their religious beliefs — but Muslims seem to be off-limits.”
In 2018, USM also received pushback when it removed three oil paintings created by a former sex offender at its Lewiston-Auburn campus because administrators feared it could “trigger” victims of abuse.
Critics felt that the school unfairly censored the artist who had paid the societal debt for a 20-year-old conviction.