(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Levy, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book ORIGINS OF THE FIFTH AMENDMENT, traces the fate of major historical figures persecuted for their opposition to accepted doctrine. Socrates, Jesus, George Fox, Thomas Paine, Roberto Rossellini, and Martin Scorsese, to mention only a few, have violated accepted truth, morality, and order as defined by established institutions. Levy shows how over the centuries the notion of blasphemy has blurred with that of other offenses such as nonconformity, sacrilege, heresy, sedition, treason, profanity, obscenity, and violence. As Levy masterfully exposes the irony of Western history, the reader quickly sees how values intended to preserve social harmony and justice have pitched opposing belief systems into a bloodbath from which few have escaped untainted. The relativity of human values emerges in the way Christians have persecuted their kith and kin for blasphemy—with Catholics feuding over the interpretation of doctrine and Protestants shifting from nonconformity in relation to Catholics to intolerance toward Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians.

In the United States, cultural ideals have evolved from Puritan origins, when blasphemy was denounced in sermons, to the modern freedoms of the First Amendment, through which even the most sacred symbols have been demystified. Although Levy argues that Americans still live under the threat of prosecution for blasphemy, writers and artists have become increasingly irreverent in undermining traditional values. Andres Serrano is a case in point. His work entitled PIS CHRIST “depicts Christ on the cross submerged in and surrounded by Serrano’s urine.” Levy contends that prosecuting such “art” is unconstitutional and also inadvisable because it would lend such work “a notoriety that would spread their scum and enhance their financial value.” Levy’s penetrating book illustrates that even as cultural norms continue to change, the timeless impulse of human nature to preserve unity and order perseveres even in times of political turmoil.