I am going to take little credit for this piece. Instead, the credit should go to John Cleese and Michael Palin who have addressed this topic straightforward in a Friday Night, Saturday Morning debate that I strongly encourage you to watch.
Here, I want to walk through that debate and address some of the items that they did not cover with respect to religion and, as Misters Cleese and Palin indicate, closed systems of thought at large.
Religion and Christ
Many of you are not going to accept that Life of Brian is not a parody of Christianity, so let’s address the elephant in the room: Life of Brian as a parody of Christ’s life.
The film opens in Bethlehem, with the Three Wise Men arriving at Brian’s birth and scaring the crap out of his mother. Zaniness ensues (including this gem that I, as a Catholic turned atheist born in early January love):
Mother: So you’re astrologers, are you? Well, what is he then?
Wise Man: Hmm?
Mother: What star sign is he?
Wise Man: …Capricorn.
Mother: Capricorn, eh? What are they like?
Wise Man: Wh- he…He is the Son of God. Our Messiah.
Wise Man #2: King of the Jews.
Mother: That’s Capricorn, is it?
Wise Man: No, no, no – that’s just him.
Mother: Oh, I was gonna say, otherwise there’d be a lot of them.
So the Three Wise Men heap praise and prayer upon Brian, deliver their gifts, and leave the stable to discover Baby Jesus in a manger nearby with Mary and Joseph. They leave Brian and discover the Baby Jesus nearby. The film tells us within the first five minutes that Brian is not Jesus, not even a stand-in for Jesus, but rather a story told at the same time. Brian is just another man living in Israel.
The film goes on to establish this again, as Michael Palin protests during the interview:
Christ is played by an actor, Kenneth Colley, he speaks the words, um, from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s treated absolutely respectfully. The camera then pans away, we go to the back of the crowd to someone who shouts, “Speak up!”, because they cannot hear him.
And this distinction is critical to this film. Christ appears preaching a moral philosophy that Python found unassailable, and so they did not attempt to assail it. They portray it and then shift attention to figures who are not Christ.
Specifically, there is more to this comedic effect than just some woman yelling “Speak up!” at Christ. We, the audience, are given an immediate understanding of scope. These people are standing as part of a crowd, outdoors, at a venue not intended for public speaking listening to a man speak with the aid of any sort of amplification device. As the Sermon continues, we see further examples of this focus:
Man 1: I think it was, “Blessed are the cheese makers.”
Woman: What’s so special about the cheese makers.
Man 2: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.
These are the citizens of the time, bickering with one another (one couple has a marital spat about nose picking) and struggling to hear the Sermon conducted some distance away. We know they will leave the Sermon with an understanding of what they’ve heard, and we have every indication that is not going well.
I find that is done nowhere as sublimely as in the moments after Brian eludes capture by the Roman centurions by posing as a prophet himself. He begins with Christ-like parables about the birds existing without material concerns (“I want to know what he’s got against birds.” “He says the birds are scrounging!”) and the lilies (“He’s having a go at the flowers now!”). As the centurions disperse, Brian’s voice trails off mid-sentence and the hostile crowd draws closer wanting to know the conclusion. Brian, uninterested because he was never there to preach in the first place, dismisses it and tries to leave. A now-engrossed crowd follows. And builds. And becomes more fevered.
As Brian runs away from the group in a moment of confusion, we get our first supernatural moments from the crowd.
First, a woman follower notes the gourd that another citizen had been haggling (one-sidedly) to purchase from Brian (who offered it to him for free, having never wanted it in the first place). “This is his gourd,” she praises, “The Holy Gourd of Jerusalem.”
They then discover his absence and conclude that Brian has been “taken up” and sing their praises into the sky, before the tall John Cleese spots him through the crowd and announces casually, “Oh, he’s over there.”
As Brian flees beyond the city walls, he loses a sandal. The group comes upon it and all hell breaks loose.
In a period of less than two minutes, this group of fanatical followers (of Brian, who, I must remind you was never a prophet, spouting pablum to avoid centurions and then protesting the attention of the crowd) splits into warring sects.
“The shoe is the sign! Let us follow his example. Let us, like him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot for this is his sign that all who follow him shall do likewise!” – Cleese
“No, no, no! The shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in abundance!” – Palin
“Cast off the shoe! Follow the gourd!” – Carol Cleveland
“It’s not things of the body, but of the face and head!” – Eric Idle
“Hold up the sandal…” – Man (Cleese immediately jumps in to disagree that it’s a shoe, not a sandal)
Here’s the thing about all of this nonsense. It has nothing to do with Brian or any message Brian preached. This is men (and a woman) interpreting things where there is nothing to interpret and pursuing it aggressively against others. The group divides immediately into these sects and head off in different directions in search of Brian. Are you listening Christians, Jews, Muslims, and, well, pretty much everyone?
They corner Brian on a mountain near a juniper bush where he accidentally stepped on a hermit’s foot, causing him to break his 18-year vow of silence.
Once again, we see a series of absurdities from the followers:
Brian: I’m not the Messiah!
Cleese: I say you are, Lord, and I should know, I’ve followed a few!
A blind man claims that he’s been cured by Brian, and the group praises the miracle even as the blind man falls into a hole. The hermit condemns him for breaking his vow of silence, and the crowd praises Brian for curing his inability to speak. They praise him for making a bush fruitful (“Of course they brought forth juniper berries. They’re juniper bushes! What did you expect?!”).
The hermit condemns Brian again for pointing out the juniper bushes, his only source of food, to the crowd. Cleese’s character immediately pounces:
A non-believer! Persecute! Kill the heretic!
The mob picks up the hermit and carries him off to fate unknown, but largely implied.
Then, of course, the scene where the multitude swarms by Brian’s house demanding an audience.
The problem that we have got is that you believe we are ridiculing Jesus, and we say, sort of sincerely and truthfully, that that is certainly not what we intended to do and I believe that we’re not. And I can best answer that, I think, by answering, um, [his] question which is that, um, “What were you trying to do?” And I think it comes out, is spelled out rather too plainly, rather too banally at one point when he says, “Make up your own mind. Don’t let other people tell you.”
We’ll come back to this in just a moment, but as one last religious prelude we should address also the conclusion. The film ends with the crucifixion of Brian and many others convicted of various crimes for which the penalty was capital punishment, and which was carried out by means of crucifixion.
And here, I do not want to make any flippant comments or personal appeals. I want you to listen to the impassioned appeal of Michael Palin on the matter of equivocation between the finale of Life of Brian and the crucifixion of Jesus:
Malcolm, if we wanted to make a joke out of Jesus, he would have appeared on the cross. He was an actor, he was there in the film – he does not appear on the cross. It’s a gang of thieves, of common criminals, who were, at that time, crucified in hundreds day by day and, I’m sorry, I know that you think I’m wrong but that’s what I feel. This is not Christ.
Malcolm goes on to make the valid point that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, but that one should not conclude the experience of those three people was the same because they went through the same physical experience. That is, after all, what the Passion is all about.
However, Cleese and Palin are making that exact point. This is not about the experience of Christ because it’s not Christ – it’s Brian. It’s Brian crucified alongside scores of other convicted citizens. No nails. No crown of thorns. No lashings. Just a depiction of the capital punishment of the day in a way that reflects the reality of the time.
Malcolm and the Bishop lament the musical number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for being particularly egregious in its satirical take on the Passion.
Here again, Cleese and Palin are quick to point out the glaring counterarguments to this position; first, that Python did not set out to influence anyone’s faith with the film. They never condemn Christianity nor any religion (and we’ll go into more depth on that in a moment). They ask only that people take a critical look and personal responsibility for their beliefs.
Second, Malcolm indicates himself that he looks forward to death keenly because of his faith and what the promise of life after death means to him. Why should this crucifixion scene appear, in a comedy, with any sort of gravitas? They are celebrating life and laughing in the face of its inherent absurdity at the most ironic moment.
Closed Systems of Thought
I want to pivot now to a broader sense – closed systems of thought. We will continue to discuss religion as few aspects of life present such clear examples of closed systems of thought:
You will find that the many children of 14 today, thanks to the secular nature of the education they are receiving know nothing about [Christianity] at all.
This is a point I have raised before regarding religion. One of Malcolm’s confused arguments throughout the discussion is that, alternately, the film will have no impact on anyone’s faith and the degree to which it will teach people a wrong view of Christianity.
First, neither of those things are accurate. Life of Brian is not about Christianity and to that end has no interest in teaching anyone any view of it. It also should have a nominal impact to the extent that it calls on people to examine their faith – not to disregard it but to examine it critically.
Second, he’s criticising here the secular nature of English schools. What one understands here though is that Malcolm refers specifically to the teaching of Christianity to English schoolchildren. This is the presentation of Christian faith as fact to an impressionable population. Life of Brian is taking a critical aim at that sort of non-critical approach.
Why is it that a child born in England is so inclined to Protestantism? A child born in Ireland to Catholicism? A child born in parts of China to folk traditions? A child born in India to Hinduism? A child born in Saudi Arabia to Islam?
Do Christians exist in largely non-Christian regions of the world? Yes, but to a far lesser degree than their counterparts, and often that is only because of Western Christian influence on the region. Religion is often not discovered through spiritual discovery or personal growth, but through cultural imposition of a religious norm.
That is, if one is born to a Christian household, Christian teachings will follow as a matter of fact and most people, not all, will either accept those teachings themselves or reject religion altogether. It is uncommon, as an example, for someone born to a Christian household to discover Hinduism and adopt it of their own accord. No examination of that faith, nor any cause for concern about it because, as far as the immediate environment is concerned, that is a wrong faith.
Consider this exchange from the discussion:
Malcolm: May I make another point just here that is rather interesting, that if you’d made that film Muhammad [again, the film is not about Jesus either], you see, there would have been an absolute hullabaloo in this country, uh, because all the sort of, you know, anti-racialist people would have risen up in their might, the same people who would approve of this, and would have said, “This is quite disgraceful”. And behind people’s minds would be the thought paid that maybe they might lose a bit of oil, you know, by doing it.
Cleese: But you’re right, Malcolm. Four hundred years ago we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made an advance.
They are not condoning the protection is Islamic fervour regarding discussion or portrayal of their religion – it’s a closed system of thought and precisely the sort of thing Python was against with the message of the film. They support the progress made in Christianity to use their symbolism and stories – the life of Christ could never have appeared as a backdrop for this film centuries prior.
It still does not alter the fact that the film is not about Jesus. Christ is off living his life precisely as you learned of it in the Bible. The Death and Resurrection still occurred in the Life of Brian universe just as we all understand it to have occurred. They did not touch those events specifically because in doing their research for the movie Python discovered that Jesus offered a strong moral philosophy about which nothing was funny. They shifted that focus to the people.
Palin: I think that, uh, and I’ve seen this in the sort of reviews of the film, they concentrate always on the religious angle, even before they’ve seen it. They’ve decided this is a film about religion. And I don’t think it is entirely. I think that what we’ve chosen to do is what we’ve always done in Python, we’ve done for three series and done for three films, we have taken a certain group of people, which are generally sort of England in the present day, and put them into historical context. I think that’s what we’ve done with this film. I think it isn’t entirely about religion, it’s about the people who live, anyone who lives and makes up our society today.
Cleese: It’s also about closed systems of thought, whether they’re political or theological, religious, whatever. Systems by which whatever evidence is given to the person he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology. You show the same event to a Marxist and a Catholic, for example, they both of them find they both have explanations of it. When it’s to be pompous Poppers on about falsifiability of theories – I mean, once you’ve got, actually got, um, an idea that is whirring round so fast that no other light or contrary evidence can come in, then I think it’s very dangerous. And I don’t think it’s dangerous for someone like Malcolm, because he is very nice, but he is the sort of guy that this film is actually having a go at, because I don’t think any evidence will come now that is going to make him rethink, “Am I right? Am I making a mistake?”
Malcolm: Well, um, you can leave that out. I think I can say with utter sincerity that there is nothing in this particular film that would lead me to want to change conclusions that I’ve reached after living for 76 years in this world.
Cleese: Is there anything? That’s the point I’m making.
Malcolm: Well, in this film, there is nothing that could possibly, because the film itself bore so little to…
Cleese: The point I was making was not the film…forget the film, you’d said it’s rubbish. Okay. Is there anything that can happen to you to change your mind?
John and Malcolm get into it again a short while later:
Cleese: How say to you… What about Freddie … What about Bertrand Russell? You dismiss them, of course. You don’t care.
Malcolm: I said the centuries of Christendom. I didn’t say in our time. I said if you were to make a list of all the people who have contributed most…
Cleese: Most of them would have been Muslims – if they’d been living in Arab countries, or Buddhists who have been living in …
Malcolm: What’s that got to do with it?
A point perhaps driven home all too well by Palin when discussing that Christ appears in the film and is not the one lampooned. He suggests that if merely lampooning anyone in the vicinity of Christ is an issue:
Palin: Now, if that utterly undermines your faith in Christ, then it can’t be that strong.
Malcom: No…no…no… Of course it doesn’t. I started off saying this is such a tenth-rate film that I don’t believe it would disturb anybody’s faith…
Palin: Yes, I know… you started with an open mind, I realise that.
I have not even touched on a great many specifics of the film or the interview (such as a brilliant anecdote from Cleese about Christians trying to take Bibles into Tibet). There’s the bit in the film about Stan/Loretta for those who have a strong stance in the feminist/anti-feminist/transgender rights efforts. There’s the inane bureaucracy of the Judean People’s Front, er, People’s Front of Judea and anti-imperial sentiment. There are views on capital punishment littered throughout.
The film holds people accountable for their lack of accountability regarding belief.
Cleese: He would have to, for example, work out – I mean, does one accept every word in the Bible? The Sermon on the Mount? Did they get it all right when Mark wrote it down 30 years later?
A tendency among those of the Christian faith is to take this as an assault and shut down as though Cleese is condemning their faith. He’s condemning this tendency to shut down as both Malcolm and Bishop Stockwood do throughout the discussion. Everything they encounter is adapted to their Christian perspective of the world, and anything to far outside that realm gets rejected. Everything filters through this lens that is glaringly obvious to anyone outside the ideology, though perhaps invisible to their own.
Are Christians wrong about their faith? Perhaps, perhaps not. That is irrelevant to this discussion. What is relevant is the critical examination of whether it is right. Christians (anyone, of any ideology) must constantly reassess their ideology through a critical lens – of scepticism, not cynicism, to keep clear the path. That path may very well continue to end in a Christian faith.
I believe it was Ricky Gervais who observed that the world has thousands of gods across the various faiths. The difference between an atheist and a Christian is that the atheist merely believes in one fewer god. When Christians criticise others for glibly dismissing their ideology they often fail to recognise their dismissal of other ideologies in the same way.
The hypocrisy is not the problem – the lack of accountability and critical thought is.