Jesus was most recently portrayed in celluloid form by a Portuguese model with great hair. I’m talking about The Bible, a miniseries broadcast on The History Channel. In it we learn that Jesus was gentle and strong; that Jews really care about rules; that God exists and is good; that religion is beautiful. This is the right way for religious images to appear on screen.
Whichever films veer from such portrayals are proclaimed offensive. Blasphemous. They are threatening somehow. And the people who feel so offended and threatened–what do they do? Well, they revert back to the Hammurabic code, a thoughtless legalism, and they return threat with threat.
That’s what happened to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. You’ll see–this movie is full of outrageous mockeries of religion, both Christian and Jewish–of the nature of human beings to be like lemmings, blindly attaching themselves to petty assessments of the miraculous, so desperate for leadership that they clamor around the nearest fellow, overlooking inconsistencies in their system, rationalizing challenges away. In Monty Python’s Life of Brian this is quite literal–Brian is born next door to Jesus, in the neighboring manger. He is indeed the nearest fellow to Jesus. But he is mislabeled as the Messiah. Hilarity ensues.
Causing religious uproar is a brilliant marketing strategy for a film: there is a strong positive correlation between successful religious offense and the buzz generated about a particular production. Offense is Life of Brian’s badge of honor: in the 1990 book A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and the Satanic Verses, mostly focusing on the controversy of Salman Rushdie’s novel, Richard Webster takes time to address Life of Brian. The author writes:
internalised censorship played a significant role in the handling of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. … As a satire on religion, this film might well be considered a rather slight production. As blasphemy it was, even in its original version, extremely mild. Yet the film was surrounded from its inception by intense anxiety, in some quarters of the Establishment, about the offense it might cause….the film was shunned by the BBC and ITV, who declined to show it for fear of offending Christians in this country.
Religious people do funny things–elaborate outfits, strange movements, nonsensical dietary restrictions. In general, as a group, they are easy to make fun of. They are also often really easy to offend, and they can also react to being offended in a way that doesn’t turn out well for anyone. I remember when I was studying religion in a Christian context and I used to send up a joke about Mormon underwear, Sikh underwear, terrible Jewish food, or most of all a joke about Jesus, people would say: “Don’t take away my Jesus!” Wow. You think I can take away your Jesus? If this liberal, Reform Californian Jewish Jew-Bu can take away your Jesus, I suggest you reassess whether you had Jesus to begin with! I should not be able to take away your Jesus. Or your Mohammed. Or your Joseph Smith, or your Torah, or your Buddha.
The makers of Life of Brian felt the same way. They were a little bemused, and perhaps confused amongst themselves, about the accusations of heresy. In Monty Python Live at Aspen (1998) Terry Jones says, “I think the film is heretical, but it’s not blasphemous.” Eric Idle can be heard to concur, adding, “It’s a heresy.” However, John Cleese says, “I don’t think it’s a heresy. It’s making fun of the way that people misunderstand the teaching.” Jones responds, “Of course it’s a heresy, John! It’s attacking the Church! And that has to be heretical.” Cleese replies, “No, it’s not attacking the Church, necessarily. It’s about people who cannot agree with each other.” In a later interview Jones said the film “isn’t blasphemous because it doesn’t touch on belief at all. It is heretical, because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself.”
The filmmakers are professed non-believers. Who knows what that means–presumably they believe in gravity and the laws of economics, which some people name as God, as in the God of universal constants and the structures of being, with no inherent moral orientation. But in any case the filmmakers of Life of Brian are not professed Christians. Unless you’re inside the Christian conception of God you can’t really discern whether you’re lampooning it or not, which might explain their confusion as to whether and exactly what kind of offense they might have achieved. In any case, the offense is light. This film is a precursor to modern day Southpark, the champion of equal opportunity offense. By today’s standards Life of Brian’s religious offense is quite mild–in 2009 local bans on showing the movie in the British Isles were lifted. Why are our standards for being offended changing? Are we taking ourselves less seriously? Developing some personal resilience? Relaxing the so-called boundary between the sacred and the profane? Getting a little more confident about the Jesus that nobody in the world can take away? It’s an optimistic read. But I like it.
The irony is that this film is made more in the rebellious spirit of Jesus than the holyrollers who supposedly protect gentle Jesus. This film overturns the moneychangers’ tables. In mocking shallow, reactionary, religious preciousness it forces people to figure out if their faith is worth more than puffery, sentiment, and self-justifying rationalization. We must forgive the offended, for they know not what they do. Monty Python cast member Eric Idle later said in the Python’s Autobiography about Jesus, “He’s not particularly funny, what he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff….” See–the Python crew are the antiestablishment revolutionaries, pushing back against mechanistic, kneejerk religious sentimentalism. We should be applauding their religiousness. They are better Christians than their Christian detractors. They had courage, and they had a grand goal (make the people laugh! and maybe think a bit!), and they execute it with utter commitment because that is the only way it will work, detractors be damned. Sounds like Jesus to me.
You think Jesus was a blond, blue-eyed gentle lamb? Or a Zombie?
Do you think that’s funny? Or are you very offended?
Being offended can be painful–it’s a protective reaction, an instinctive defense of something precious to us. That reactivity exposes a deeper vulnerability. That vulnerability is a great part of you, and I want to encourage it. But I also see offense as an opportunity. An opportunity to question what it is inside you that has been threatened, that is so precious and so in need of your defense. Because if you really think about it, it might not need your defense. Chances are you aren’t holding it up and sustaining it–it might actually be holding you up and sustaining you.
So play a little. Get offended. Follow that impulse to your soft belly and let it be a clue to you about what exactly is so darn precious that you’re willing to get red-faced and publicly principled about. And think about the fact that Jesus endured unthinkable torture, unbearable betrayal, crushing disappointment in his friends and religious peers–all without getting huffy and prissy and schoolmarmish. All because his feet were planted on the ground of his being and he was living and breathing in a truth that his whole being confirmed for him. He was doing the Right Thing, and that solid certainty kept his head held high, never reacting to offense, until finally his quiet confidence shamed his offenders for millennia. Yes, it is absurd. And once you understand it nobody can take it away from you, even by laughing at it. Maybe finding that part of you will help you take yourself less seriously, enough so you can laugh right back.
I’m a Jew–well, JewISH–and you have probably sensed by now that I’m unlikely to be religiously offended (I have other insecurities that cannot withstand a healthy ribbing). I am more interested in the conception of God that leads to the creative engagement of filmmaking, the rebellion inherent in satire, and in risking offense to a dominant paradigm that sometimes doesn’t seem to understand the complexity and self-contradictions of its own text.
I also lift up the Jewish value of makhloket–disagreement. There are two Jews and three opinions. We have two different positions on something between us? Great. Now we get to talk about it, fight about it, drop our weird social boundaries of propriety, and engage about something we feel strongly about. The disagreement, if wielded constructively, can lead to new creation. Can lead to a third way, to a relationship. And that is what is happening when we watch Life of Brian and maybe fight about it or feel uncomfortable or feel proud of the filmmakers and a little nervously envious that we didn’t make this movie.
This movie gets us talking and it provides grounds for a relationship. When you watch it (you really should, it’s fantastic), pay attention to your quiet twinges of offense or your petty grievances: these are clues to your values, to your precious soft spots, to what you hold most dear. These are the seeds of your art, and of your own life.
Life–that thing we’re looking on the bright side of, and trying to laugh at.
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.