As 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: