Humor; humor is difficult.
Religion; religion is difficult.
They can both be reassuring, and discomfiting. They can affix labels, or they can liberate. They can be subversive, or they can uplift the dominant paradigm. Both can be thrilling and boring. They can be unifying, or alienating. Religion and humor both aspire to help us live our lives a little better, more vitally, more happily, more freely; but both can be destructive, violent, petty, unintelligent, and disappointing. Both have so much potential. And both–as all church-shoppers know, and as all failed attempts at humor know–are really hard to get right.
When you get humor right it overtakes you. Same as religion. Both take you out of your body and out of your ego and into a sublime, heightened ecstasy of freedom.
Both capture an essence of vitality that is elusive. Something we chase after. Something we lean on when we are nervous, something we crave, and something not all of us are predisposed, or shall I say gifted, enough to generate. It takes a certain fitness to be consistently illuminated, or consistently funny.
Let’s consider Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A humorous film about religion.
Film; film is difficult. For all the same reasons that religion and humor are difficult. The potential, the disappointment. The elusive transcendence, the mundane and trite. Those hours you won’t get back!–or, those hours that disappeared as you sat timeless, enraptured, your humanity lit up in profound empathy, or traumatized memory, or doubled over in laughter.
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian we have a glorious trifecta–film, humor, religion. A potent combination. In the spirit of the trifecta I will release three articles considering Monty Python’s Life of Brian, interrogating the film’s images, the question of authority in religious filmmaking, and all the glorious ways in which this film is offensive.
Let me ask you to imagine something for me. The road to Damascus. A story in the New Testament of the Christian Bible–about the guy we know as Paul the Apostle. His original moniker is Paul the Pharisee, a rabbi, and he is on his way to the town of Damascus in present-day Syria to denounce his fellow Jews, particularly those who were following a half-naked peasant stoic around the Galilee basin as he said outrageous things about the Jewish law being fulfilled and the rabbinical authorities being corrupt. This Pharisee Paul is very concerned that the followers of this peasant Jew, Jesus, are zealots who had incorrectly identified the Jewish Messiah, who after all was supposed to be a military hero in all sorts of finery! So Paul is on his way to Damascus to denounce and report all of them, to proclaim their activities unlawful and to get Israel back on track in their resistance against Rome. As the story goes, on the road to Damascus Paul receives a vision from God confirming that Jesus is the Messiah, and Paul should worship him and spread the word not just among Jews but among gentiles too. Imagine Paul: the desert scene. What is he wearing? Is anyone with him? Is he on foot–is he riding?
Some or many of you will see Paul, in your mind’s eye, on a horse.
Here’s something interesting: there’s no horse in the scripture. Paul walks in his sandals through the desert. No animals ever appear in the road to Damascus narrative. Why do we all think Paul is riding a snorting, prancing, powerful white steed? (Just because it’s not in scripture doesn’t mean it’s not there–it’s possible it could be there–but if we follow this line of thought there could just as well be a pinball machine and a set of steak knives on the road to Damascus.) So why do we think Paul is on a proud lovely stallion?
Because year after year when artists have been commissioned to depict this story, they have been commissioned to convey the brute glory of the moment that Paul received his history-making vision, and his conversion to Jesus-following. Han’s Speckaert’s 1570 painting of Paul that hangs in the Louvre. Caravaggio’s 1601 masterpiece Conversion on the Way to Damascus. The Statue of Saint Paul at Bab Kisan in Damascus, Syria. The new equine sculpture by Bruce Denny outside St Paul’s Cathedral London. Every last one of them–and many more images through history–depict Paul atop, or just tumbling off of–a very grand and commanding steed. This image makes him more noble, martial, right, strong, more authoritative–does it not?
The problem with this is simple–not just the fact that it’s not in the scripture, but there’s another reason Paul could not have had his own personal steed: the detail presents a historical anachronism. The domesticated Arabian horse wasn’t in common use in the Syrian desert at the time. Not until half a millennium later would early Muslims start to traffic in pedigreed steeds. If anything Paul would have had a few mules. Not so glorious, huh?
The point is, we all have an image of glory in our head that has been implanted by an acculturated process whereby we all cultivate certain convictions about the ways things are and the way things look and what the facts of certain historical scenes are. Problem is, they never happened. They were commissioned and manipulated to appear authoritative by people with political or theological agendas.
This is how film works in society. The deep voice of God, God as Skydaddy, God as concession stand, Muslims as terrorists (who always, strangely enough, look like Sikhs), Jews as either Orthodox Jews or neurotic New Yorkers, Hindus dancing Bollywood, Jesus as a blue-eyed blond gentle lamb. Film implants these visions in our heads and we base our beliefs and convictions upon these potent images.
There are classic issues raised when people talk about Religion and Film Studies. Issues like the image of God–how do you eff the ineffable? Any image of the divine mimics the divine, just like Brian is mistaken for Jesus in this film, just like his petty throwaway comments are taken for doctrines, just like circumstantial moments are taken for miracles and Jesus’ face turns up on a grilled cheese sandwich. Life of Brian itself mimics other serious movie moments like Spartacus. How do you image the un-imageable, especially when there are theological constraints at hand? Film is technically a graven image on a filmstrip–so are all Judeo-Christian cinema images violating the Second Commandment? It’s fun to think about. I’ll just plant this seed: any image of the divine un-imageable is as much a victim of mistaken identity as is our protagonist Brian.
Let me tell you why I think Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a triumphant vessel for the real Christian message. The final tableau of this movie is a slow pan out from a field of condemned, crucified Judeans, all bound to crucifixes, teetering on narrow ledges as their bodies slowly collapse around their lungs until they asphyxiate. What are they doing? They are singing. Always look on the bright side of life! It’s absurd! The mind can hardly compute this gruesome joy! All we can do is laugh at it. And that, finally, is the same paradoxical horrifying beauty of the Christian story: someone has overwhelmed the grave! The peasant king laughs at the Empire! Is it absurd and mysterious? Yes! Perhaps all we can do is laugh at it. You see–humor and religion get at the same holy fire inside all of us, expressed by paradoxical absurdity, uplifted by the breath of laughter.
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.
So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath
And…always look on the bright side of life…
Always look on the light side of life….
You think religion is dangerous? So is film. So is humor.
Next up: Who has the authority to make an authoritative film about Jesus?
Originally delivered to the BU Film Society as the Spring 2013 lecture on Religion and Film, at their screening of MONTY PYTHON’S THE LIFE OF BRIAN.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.