Swapping the Bible for the Qur'an: How street comedy challenged religious prejudice

Two Dutch comedians disguised a Bible as a Qur'an.Reuters

It's a great stunt, it really is.

Two Dutch comedians, Sacha Harland and Alexander Spoor, decided that since Muslims in general were increasingly tainted by their association with Islamic State in particular and accused of "following a religion that has no place in our Western culture", they'd put Christianity to the same test.

So they bought a Bible, slipped the dust-jacket from the Qur'an on to it and filmed people's reaction as they read out choice passages about homosexuality, female submissiveness and the penalty of disobedience. These included "If two men sleep with each other they will both have to be killed" (Leviticus 20:13), "If you reject my commands and abhor my laws, you will eat the flesh of your own sons and the flesh of your own daughters" (Leviticus 26:30) and "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission" (1 Timothy 2:11).

Cue outrage: "This sounds ridiculous," one man said. "How could anyone believe in this? That's unbelievable to me," another woman said.

On the other hand: "I think the Bible mostly has a lot of positive things in it," one woman said. "The Bible is a lot less harsh and a bit more peaceful," a man said.

The video was uploaded on Friday and has already had more than a million views. And it's thought-provoking.

They seem to have been motivated by a desire to expose people's prejudices, which they've done very effectively: Christians good, Muslims bad.

But they've incidentally succeeded in reinforcing a narrative that's increasingly gained traction in recent years: that all religion is bad. The much-criticised report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, which argues that Britain's changed religious landscape should be reflected our public life and institutions (even daring to suggest that Thought for the Day should be opened up to atheists) refers to a suspicion among many "that religion is a primary source of all the world's ills".

Well, this seems to confirm it: the Bible commands cutting people's hands off (Deuteronomy 25:12) as well as the Qur'an. The Qur'an is down on women, but so is the Bible. When it comes to homosexuality, the Qur'an is actually rather ambiguous; it requires extraordinary mental gymnastics to make the Bible patient of a more accepting point of view.

So, is all religion bad? Obviously not, and imagining, like John Lennon, that if you could just dispense with it the world would be a better place is shallow and stupid. (Lennon also wrote "Imagine no possessions/It's easy if you try," composing it on his Steinway in a bedroom at his magnificent Tittenhurst Park estate in Berkshire).

But there's a point here, even so. All religions develop. Whether we want to admit it or not, Christianity has developed too. We read the revelation of God in scripture from the perspective of hundreds of years of thinking, study and experience. We're affected not just by abstract study of the text, as though we're operating in a closed system, but by the wider currents of thought as well. So committed Christians who are steeped in the Bible and passionate about Jesus are just as horrified at the idea of killing someone for homosexual acts or cutting off a woman's hand if she tries to break up a fight between her husband and someone else as those innocent victims of the Dutch comedians' prank.

Things that were entirely accepted by most Christians and justified from scripture – like slavery, the oppression of women and capital punishment – we now regard with abhorrence. And what happens is that we re-read the Bible in the light of changing times, and sometimes we think, "Actually, that still works and it's our culture that's got it wrong." But sometimes we think, "How could any Christian have believed that?" We realise that the Bible contains something quite different from what we thought. And it isn't about rejecting something, it's about understanding it better.

The great Catholic convert John Henry Newman – now a saint, bless him – wrote this in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: "It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring." In other words, we go back to the source of the faith to find it at its truest. That's a very Protestant idea – never mind about the last 2,000 years, we need to get back to the Bible! And – as a Baptist Christian – I'm all for that. We need to be constantly correcting our course by looking behind us at the leading marks that scripture provides.

But Newman also says that when it comes to philosophy and belief, the stream "is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full". In a famous line, he says: "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." And one of the weaknesses of Protestantism is that we aren't very good at Church history; we skip straight from the New Testament to the Reformation all too easily.  

Both Christianity and Islam contain texts that can be used to justify violence and oppression. But they don't have to be used like that. Most Christians have learned that their faith doesn't allow violence, cruelty and hatred. So have most Muslims. The battle is with those who haven't learned it yet.

In the meantime, if our Dutch comedians have made us look at ourselves with fresh eyes, they've done a good thing.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.