Why Monty Python Makes for Good Religion: Reflections on Religion and Film, Part 2/3

(This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. See Part 1 here.)




There is another hot issue in a discussion about religion and the Bible: the question of who has authority over the telling of a narrative? How about The Bible miniseries on The History Channel? It’s a very confident little piece, isn’t it? Let me tell you a little bit about the text it purports to be based off of, especially what the Christian production company might consider the most important installment of the miniseries–the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The New Testament is comprised of a few categories–let’s call them the gospels and the letters. There are four gospels, four separate accounts of the ministry and eventual execution of Jesus, inscribed between 30-60 years after his death. They offer four competing narratives, and if you lay them in parallel formation they contradict each other blatantly. Between the four gospels you have four different scenes at the tomb when Jesus is discovered to have triumphed over death through resurrection. Which do the fillmmakers pick? Do they conflate all four? Are they noble to one? What is their agenda?

A certain kind of Christian production company is likely to ignore the Gospel of Mark, which ends with this line: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:20, NRSV). Now that’s not very glorious. That’s the version Italian cinema will engage, and Pier Paolo Pasolini does it beautifully in his creepy, sorrowful portrayal of the Passion story. But production companies who want to glorify Jesus also don’t like the Gospel of Luke, where the Marys and Peter see two strange men, presumably angels, and yet again “they went home, amazed at what had happened” (Luke 24:12 NRSV). Even in the Gospel of John, supposedly the evangelical one, Mary runs into Jesus at the tomb, disguised as a gardener, and she flees. Let’s keep looking for glory. Finally! The Gospel of Matthew delivers! A big angel is chilling on the tombstone, proclaims the risen Lord, and the disciples meet Jesus on their way home! The Bible miniseries uses this version of the tomb scene.

So you see–there’s no authoritative tale of the Bible. Anyone who tells you so is selling you something. Anyone who makes a movie about it has to make these choices. But film is very powerful–remember Paul on his imaginary white horse on the road to Damascus?–and it seals in the minds of the viewers certain ideas about the way things went down that day at the tomb. That silver screen stabilizes in our collective imaginations the FACT–like Paul’s factual horse–of a resurrection. That miniseries confirms with utter confidence the particular details around the central message of Christianity–not just that there is a truth that is bigger than all of our miserable lives and insignificant deaths, but that it happened in such and such a specific way. Suddenly, with the authoritative portrayal of the resurrection, we have history’s greatest Zombie story sealed into the minds of many viewers who don’t care to actually read the Bible they hold up as representing historical truth. What’s true? Well, it’s in the Bible. Did you read it? No–this movie tells the story. Oh I see–and I bet you’ll use your own version of the Bible to do lots of other gruesome things, like deny civil rights to gay people.

Next up in this trinitarian series about religion and film: we return to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and try to figure out why it is so deliciously offensive.

See Part 3 here.


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.

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