Religious Offense and The Life of Brian

Life of BrianAs I’ve been on a Monty Python kick recently, I’ve revisted Life of Brian. It is the best thing that the group ever did — in terms of comedy, theme, and simple move making. It is a great film. But I don’t think we need to discuss that. Most people I know think that Life of Brian is the pinnacle of their work. What I find more interesting is the fact that the film was controversial. But my memory about it was vague. And I really wondered whether there was much of that. I know that there are silly people who get offended by any discussion of Jesus that isn’t reverential. But were they really upset about Brian? It is hard to believe.

The main reason that it is hard to believe is that the film is reverential toward Jesus. If you ask me, it tries rather too hard in this regard. There are only three instances where Jesus plays a role at all. The first is after the wise men mistake Brian for the Jewish savior. When we finally do see the baby Jesus, the whole scene is lit with halos of Mary and Joseph. The second time we see Jesus is at the Sermon on the Mount where he is portrayed with great seriousness by the fine Kenneth Colley, surround by hundreds of followers. And the only other time I recall him mentioned is when the ex-leper discusses how Jesus cured him and deprived him of his livelihood as a beggar. In all these cases, Jesus is presented as he is in the Bible. Brian is just this regular guy who lives at the same time.

But I think I know why the Christians got upset about the film. It isn’t the portrayal of Jesus that they have a problem with. It is that the film makes fun of fanaticism. It has no opinion about being fanatical about a good cause. But most people are just keen on following anything at all. And that is key, I think. Most Christians are only followers of Jesus for one reason: their parents were. So Life of Brian brings up a very uncomfortable question for Christians, “Does your belief make any more sense than the Heaven’s Gate cult?” To me it is very clear that the Heaven’s Gate cult makes a lot more sense because at least those in it, chose it rather than just accepting what they heard as children.

What’s remarkable, however, is that it wasn’t just your garden variety cultural Christian who had a problem with the film. In the follow interview from the time on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican Bishop Mervyn Stockwood debate John Cleese and Michael Palin. And they both make the argument that Brian is Jesus. I suppose that that is about the only argument that you can make. The truth isn’t going to fly. They just can’t say, “The film makes us look stupid.” But it does show that even those we think of as serious Christians really aren’t.

What’s perhaps most interesting in this interview is how angry Michael Palin is during this. By all accounts, Palin is a the nicest guy you would ever meet. But here, he really doesn’t seem to like the way that his work has been misinterpreted. Still, he maintains his composure. It speaks rather poorly of Christianity that Stockwood and most especially Muggeridge go out of their way to be offensive about the film. Muggeridge refers to it numerous times as being “tenth rate” and discusses how the film got easy laughs with four-letter words and nudity. That simply isn’t true. I suspect that his mind was as closed to the film as it was to his religion.

It was curious to be reminded of all this. I do wonder what Christians think they are doing by being so closed minded. But it goes right along with my thinking about religion. The general level of religious thought is so simplistic and useless that a film like Life of Brian really does act as a kind of criticism. And this debate serves the same purpose that the film itself does: the Pythons hold up a mirror to our society. In this case, they didn’t even say very much. The religious figures made the argument themselves. Regardless if one is a Christian or not, he must decide that he doesn’t want to be that kind of Christian. And that is the the main kind of Christian around.

Update (29 December 2014 8:30 pm)

Infidel753 reminded me of this great parody of the debate:

6 thoughts on “Religious Offense and The Life of Brian

    • Yes! It’s brilliant. Rowan Atkinson is so great as a preacher. And he does a great job parodying Mervyn Stockwood with his big hulking cross. I’ll put the video into an update for the article. I should have thought of that before.

  1. Hadn’t seen that, Infidel. Thanks for the link.
    The stoning, Judean Peoples’ Front, and Biggus Dickus are some of the funniest things I have ever see, and hold up well over time. And, superficially, at least, that’s part of the problem. Fun is suspect. Fun is probably sinful. I think that’s where about half the energy for the War on Christmas thing Fox does (tells the old white people to do) every year comes from. Those people…those heathens and fake Christians are having fun. The took our holiday we didn’t really care about until Charles Dickens, and then Macy’s gave them all those ideas and JUST LOOK AT THEM ENJOYING THEMSELVES! Not groveling. Not whipping themselves with knotted cords and repeating ‘I’m the miserable sinner who drove in the nails’. And spending all that money that is rightfully God’s. It will not do.
    And, yes, crass commercialism is truly a thing. This is America, after all. And that’s what non crazy people nod to when they hear a Reason For The Season rant. But that’s not what the true believers hear. Not the ones who know, if only on an emotional level, that it’s really about power. Specifically, in America, about patriarchy and white supremacy. And past a point on the ideological spectrum, the condemnation of the sinner ceases to ever be about them, and always about you. No matter how objectively, and demonstrably awful they are, all is forgiven. But you are never forgiven.
    And then we come to their investment in the concept of blasphemy. That is always the tell for a religious authoritarian. This god person, who sees all and knows all, and can settle up with me in his own way, must be avenged in this world. Their book explicitly tells them not to do this, but it’s not about honoring their imaginary god. It’s about power in the real world. I forget who I’m plagairizing, probably Fred Clark at Patheos, but it’s rich that those who complain most about Christ being taken out of Christmas don’t seem to notice that Christ has been largely excised from Christianity.

    • I love that last sentence! That is exactly it. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, I was offended at a church play when they claimed that Christmas was the most important day for Christians. Could they really be that ignorant? The birth isn’t even mentioned in Mark — the earliest Gospel.

      If the Christians want their fake holiday back, they can have it. They just have to understand that this isn’t going to cause people to switch from “happy holidays” to “merry Christmas.” It will just cause people to stop saying “happy holidays” altogether.

      But Christmas is great for the economy. And I have a proposal for that. Let’s get rid of Christmas. Let’s make all the months 30 days long. Then, at the end of the year, we’ll have a great big holiday for 5 days. I think it might be better to move this to the start of spring, however. Regardless, I think this would be great. We could really use a big bash one week each year. (Five days plus everyone leaving early the day before and calling in sick the day after.) And it would be totally secular so we wouldn’t have to hear the Christers whining.

    • Nice post! Surprised nobody mentioned how the crowd mangled Brian’s Sermon On The Mount. “What? Blessed are the cheese makers?” That, to me, is the most sacrilegious thing in the film. It suggests that religious rebels who said something powerful, which spoke to the emotional needs of people dissatisfied with the existing power structures in their time, have their messages diluted over the ages. Unspoken but inferred is how those messages are diluted to serve the aims of religious power structures. It’s Paul and the writings of later theologians/Popes/preachers, not the words quoted from the Gospels’ Christ character, which make up the worst of Christianity. From what I understand of Islam, it’s not so much the Koran that’s used to justify crummy rules so much as the Hadiths, sayings attributed to the Prophet which he didn’t actually write down himself.

      To make what might seem to you a real stretch, but seems reasonable to me, consider how the activism of MLK has been repurposed. He hadn’t been dead for twenty years before people were using his words to suggest he would have opposed affirmative action. His loathing of the Vietnam war and support for workers’ movements have been erased from mainstream American history.

      My other favorite bit in “Brian” is the Roman soldier making Brian correct his improper Latin graffiti reading “Romans Go Home.” It’s just so Python, it really has nothing to do with the larger messages of the movie, simply a rip at tyrannical schoolmasters.

      It’s a neat thing about Python. They’ve gotten old, and defanged, and roll in some nostalgia money from time to time. None of them has turned evil and totally renounced their previous, anti-authoritarian ways (like now-crazed right-winger Janine Turner, who played a lovely feminist in one of my favorite American shows, “Northern Exposure”); they’re still a wee bit subversive in their golden years. They never stopped hating that dickhead of a Latin schoolmaster. It’s why Python is still hugely appealing to kids, even if they don’t get all the references. Arbitrary power used for its own sake by insecure people is something we adults grudgingly accept as a norm; kids don’t stand for it until they get older and have to.

      • No, I don’t think that’s a stretch. King was against the war and in favor of labor rights. But we don’t talk about that because on both those fronts, we’ve gone the wrong direction. Many Christians today get their image of Jesus not from the Gospels but from Revelation, where Jesus is a Rambo-like badass rather than the Prince of Peace. This is at the base of my problem with people who complain about Islam. Religions are not the texts — they are want people take from the texts. Generally, everyone takes the worst things from the texts.

        The Latin sequence is great and it is totally Cleese. He really is the intellectual core of the group. I think without him, the group is still quite funny but not as crisp. (See, for example, the special agent dog in Mr Neutron.) On the other hand, without Terry Jones, it would have been just another sketch comedy show. My understanding is that their group meetings were generally Cleese and Jones arguing. Another great bit from Brian, “What Jesus fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.”

        As much as Janine Turner always rang my bell physically, seeing her interviewed at the time made it very clear that she wasn’t that bright. It’s amazing that a relative dullard could play a reasonably smart character. So I wasn’t surprised at all when she turned Tea Party. (Does modern America ever remind you of Rhinoceros?) And the bleach blond hair is just awful. Another sexual fantasy destroyed!

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