Prof. Morna D. Hooker
15th November 2015
Monty Python’s Life of Brian was first screened back in 1979, long before most of you were born. Anyone attending an address about it in a church or chapel at that time would undoubtedly have expected to hear a denunciation of a film which was widely regarded as blasphemous. On November 9th that year, a notorious television debate took place between John Cleese and Michael Palin on the one side and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, on the other, and led to Malcolm Muggeridge describing it as a ‘miserable little film’ which would soon be forgotten, since it was only ‘tenth rate’. Astonishingly, it seems that today you have all heard of the film, even if you have never seen it, and know that Brian was not the Messiah, but simply ‘a very naughty boy’, who was under the delusion that Jesus had pronounced a blessing on the cheese-makers. Even more astonishingly, an academic conference on The Life of Brian was held at King’s College London last year, at which one participant described the film as ‘a tribute to the life, work and teaching of Jesus’. John Cleese, who was present, was very chuffed! Blasphemy or tribute? A ‘squalid little film’ or one deserving the attention of scholars researching the life of Jesus 35 years after it appeared? As usual, I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in-between.
A great deal of the opposition to the film lay in the supposition that it was a parody of the life of Jesus. The Pythons denied this, and it seems nearer the mark to say that it is a parody of the many biblical epics which appeared at this time. The crucified rebels’ chorus of ‘I’m Brian’ even echoes a scene in Spartacus. Brian is not Jesus, though he can be seen as Jesus’ alter ego, which is why the film invites us to reflect on the tradition about Jesus in new ways. Indeed, in that TV debate, Michael Pailin says that they rejected the idea of doing a ‘Life of Jesus’, because the more they researched the topic, the more they realized that there was very little to ridicule in the life of Jesus himself. For the Pythons, the film was a parody of contemporary British life, which is perhaps why the central character has the strangely unJewish name of ‘Brian’ – even though they say they chose it because people called ‘Brian’ tended to be somewhat slow to catch on! The centurion who demands that Brian writes out Romani ite Domum, the correct Latin version of ‘Romans go home’, a hundred times over, and who ticks the names of the rebels on his list, inviting them to take ‘one cross each’, and who asks them not to let the side down as they march to execution, is a parody of the public school master – an institution clearly loathed by John Cleese who, in that television debate, protested about the chapel services he had been made to attend at school, services which made him wonder why he was being forced to listen to this ‘rubbish’. It emerged, in discussion, that some of the sermons he endured had been preached by Mervyn Stockwood! But it was not Christianity itself that the Pythons were attacking – rather the form of Christianity that insulted their intelligence. Indeed, the film was not really about religion at all, they said, but was an allegory about suburban England, its class system and public schools, its bureaucracy, nationalism and imperialism. In lampooning the characters in the story, the film followed in the tradition of the mediaeval mystery plays, which lampooned contemporary clerics and rulers in the guise of biblical characters.
At the same time, however, the film-makers recognized that Jesus had to be seen in the context of his time – and so the context that Brian, his contemporary, inhabits conveys brilliantly the tensions of first-century Palestine. First of all, we are made aware of the reality of the brutality of the Roman occupation. ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ ask the rebels. The answer, of course, was ‘a great deal’: communications, roads, sanitation, an excellent water supply – and yet they were ruthless in controlling their subjects. To the Jews, they represented not just an alien force, but the enemies of God, who must be driven from the land.
The bizarre portrayal of rival groups of rebels who concocted absurd plans to oust the Romans – plans which came to nothing because they couldn’t agree among themselves – reminds us that there were in fact many such rival groups. The film-makers did their homework – and for that reason, one needs to know a little about conditions in first-century Palestine, as well as the life of Jesus, in order fully to appreciate the film. The antipathy between Jews and Samaritans, for example, is reflected in one rebel’s protest that he was being crucified next to a Samaritan! There should be separate sections for Jews and Samaritans, he insists. The way in which the poetic images used by apocalyptic visionaries, who spoke of the sun and moon falling from heaven, were frequently understood literally is mocked in the pathetic ramblings of prophets describing how in those last days everything will go astray. What, for example? Well, hammers, and other things.
Of Jesus himself, we catch only glimpses in the film. In the opening scene, the wise men follow a mysteriously moving star, but find themselves in the wrong cave at the wrong manger, before discovering the right child, and reclaiming their gifts to deliver them to Jesus. As with the Gospels, we move quickly forward, and find ourselves present when Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount. On the outskirts of the crowd, it is difficult to hear what he is saying, but a bystander assures us that it is ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers’, reminding us how difficult it is to ‘hear’ – that is to understand – Jesus’ words, twenty centuries later. Why should cheese-makers, in particular, be blessed, we wonder, and are assured that the words are not to be taken literally, but apply to all manufacturers of dairy products; to me, as a biblical scholar, this remark reminds me uncomfortably of the kind of unhelpful comment made all too often in biblical commentaries. As for misunderstanding Jesus’ words, we hardly need reminding, this weekend, in the light of events in Paris, of the way in which those with closed minds can ‘mishear’ words of scripture, whether recorded in the Bible or in the Koran.
Elsewhere, the story of Jesus lies in the background of the film, even though he is not mentioned. In the story of someone being stoned for blasphemy, for example, where it is the hypocrite who denounces him who is himself felled by a huge stone. There are echoes here of Jesus’ denunciation both of stoning and of hypocrites. The only reason given for the stoning is ‘because it is written, that’s why’, reminding us that first-century Jewish life was governed by the scriptures.
Brian turns out to be the son of a Roman centurion, reminding us of the accusations surrounding Jesus’ birth, recorded in non-biblical Jewish sources.
An echo of the Gospel story comes in the question thrown at Brian’s mother:
‘Are you a virgin?’ When Brian denies that he is the Messiah, a member of the crowd points out that the true Messiah is the one person who is bound to deny his own messiahship – and we remember that it is this which seems to explain Jesus’ own silence in the Gospels. In the Gospels, too, Jesus’ own family – including his mother – fail to recognize him, and think that he is out of his mind. So it is here, with Brian: in one of the most famous lines of the film, his mother declares: ‘he’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy’. The crowds, convinced that Brian is indeed the Messiah, flock to hear him, and he cannot shake them off, however much he tries – another parallel to the story of Jesus. Though no great preacher, Brian’s words feebly echo Jesus’ teaching about not judging others, and relying on God to meet one’s need. The crowd follows him into the wilderness, determined to make him their leader, and hail him as the Messiah; hungry, they demand food, and attempt to satisfy their hunger with juniper berries. Once again, you need to know the Gospel stories of the feeding of the crowd to appreciate the story here.
It is in the reaction of the crowd to Brian that we see what the Pythons apparently regarded as the central message of the film. It was, as John Cleese insisted in that television debate, that you must think for yourselves. ‘You’re all individuals,’ Brian tells the crowd, and with one voice they chant ‘Yes, we are all individuals’. ‘You’re all different,’ he tells them, and again they echo his words. Belief is not something that should be imposed upon people, but something they come to for themselves. It is not Christianity per se that is being attacked, but a Christianity that is imposed, and that is accepted without question. Perhaps the critics of the film should have learned that lesson and thought about it for themselves, rather than simply echoing the condemnations of others.
It is undoubtedly true that the scenes which gave the greatest offence to Christians were the final ones, in which Brian is marched out to be executed and
is crucified. Many saw this as a mockery of Jesus’ own crucifixion, and so as an attack on the most deeply-held convictions of Christian believers. The final scene, in which the crucified rebels join in a chorus of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, is a long way from the tradition of Christ, dying in agony, naked, isolated and shamed, apparently defeated by the powers of evil. Muggeridge claimed that it made Jesus into a clown. The voice-over, telling us that records of the song are available for purchase in the foyer after the show, reminds us of the musicals popular at the time, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell among them.
Far from the traditional portrayal of the dying Jesus it may be, yet here too there are echoes of the Gospel story: the man who helps someone carry his cross; the failure of Brian’s so-called friends to stand by him; the release of another prisoner instead of Brian. But there are even closer parallels at a deeper level. Brian is not crucified alone, but among a crowd of common criminals – and far from undermining the significance of the parallel scene in the Gospels, as protestors suggested, the idea that Jesus did not die alone is in fact something which the Gospels emphasize, by showing Jesus crucified between two gangsters. Like Brian, Jesus is put to death alongside his fellow human beings – so encapsulating the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; he was made like us, both in his birth and in his death. He shared our humanity to the full, and ended up on a cross, like so many other first-century Jewish leaders.
What really strikes one, however, watching the final scene of the film, is that none of the victims seems to be suffering pain or humiliation. Rather they are depicted as almost triumphant, defying Rome to the last, singing about the bright side of life. The scene appears unrealistic, the words banal, and the song strikes us as particularly inappropriate at the moment, when our thoughts are focussed, not on a group of crucified terrorists, but on the innocent victims of terrorists in Paris. To speak of death as the ‘bright side’ of life to their families and friends would certainly be offensive. Nevertheless, that final scene reminded me of another traditional portrayal of Jesus’ death – those crucifixes where Jesus is shown, apparently dying in triumph, rather than in agony. Here the cross has become a throne, and Jesus’ arms are spread out to embrace the whole of humanity. This is the theme of Christus Victor, an interpretation of the death of Christ which sees it as a triumph and a victory over the powers of evil, rescuing humanity from the grasp of sin and death. It is a theme that is present already in the Gospels; think, for example, of the fact that Mark insists that Jesus is put to death as King, or of John’s portrayal of the crucifixion as Jesus’ glorification. It is a doctrine that is expounded by later theologians, and by the makers of those powerful Christus Victor crucifixes. If you try to portray these two ideas – of the suffering Christ and the triumphant Christ – in art or film, you get two very different pictures, but each represents an aspect of the truth, and the second of them is echoed here, however inadequately.
The Life of Brian seems, in fact, to stop before it gets to the end of the story – which is presumably our ‘hero’s’ death. The film ends with the chorus of the crucified, and so leaves us wondering why we should look on the bright side of life. What reason has been given for this optimism? None at all. Brian’s story, a story of mistakes and absurdities from beginning to end, has ended in total failure. But it reminds us that in that other, parallel story – the life of Jesus – which seemed to many to have ended in total failure. In that story, however, the scene of Jesus’ death is not the end, but leads to glory and triumph, and the bright side of life proves to be victory and resurrection.