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Is he more than a ‘naughty boy’?

13 June 2014

The Church missed a chance to respond to Monty Python's Life of Brian, argues Richard Burridge

Seeking the Messiah: Brian's followers find symbolism in a sandal

Seeking the Messiah: Brian's followers find symbolism in a sandal

WHEN Monty Python's Life of Brian opened in November 1979, John Cleese and Michael Palin appeared on Tim Rice's BBC show Friday Night -Saturday Morning to discuss it with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Rt Revd Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark. Muggeridge called it a "squalid little number" and "tenth rate", while the Bishop, resplendent in purple cassock and fingering his large pectoral cross, accused them of "blasphemy", looking to get their "thirty pieces of silver".

As the Monty Python team gather for a series of reunion shows at the O2 arena, and an international academic conference, "Jesus and Brian", is being held next week in London, it is high time to reconsider these accusations. The intervening years have demonstrated how much the Church got it wrong, misunderstood the film, and missed a significant opportunity to debate the importance of Jesus in British life.

Muggeridge and Stockwood repeatedly charged the Pythons with blasphemy and mocking Jesus. They had, however, arrived late to see the film, and missed the opening scenes. It begins with the Wise Men visiting a stable, worshipping the infant Brian, and giving his mother, Mandy, the traditional gold, frankincense, and myrrh - although she is interested only in the gold.

When they emerge, they see in the angel-light the real stable with the star, grab the gifts back from Mandy, and go to worship Jesus instead. We then cut to Jesus's delivering the Sermon on the Mount, while Brian and Mandy stand at the back of the crowd. They mishear his saying as "Blessed are the cheesemakers" (leading to the wonderful parody of biblical interpretation that Jesus really meant to include "all manufacturers of dairy products").

Even if the Bishop and Muggeridge had missed these clear distinctions between Jesus and Brian, they would have seen Michael Palin, as a bronzed and healthy "ex-leper", later pester Brian for alms, because Jesus has taken away his livelihood by healing him.

BOTH in the BBC debate and subsequently, the Pythons have always maintained that they were not blaspheming or attempting to mock Jesus. It began with Eric Idle's impromptu response to a journalist at the première of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that the next film would be "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory" - parodying the Patton: Lust for Glory movie that was also then showing.

Contemporary interviews and records, however, such as Michael Palin's Diaries 1969-79 (Orion, 2007), record how the Pythons came to respect Jesus. Idle says: "We all went off and read the Bible, and I read the Dead Sea Scrolls. . . I think we realised at that point that we couldn't make a film about Jesus Christ because he's not particularly funny; what he's saying isn't mockable, it's very decent stuff" (The Pythons Autobiography, Orion, 2003).

Instead, Brian was created as a stock Python character, bumbling and well-meaning, who has a habit of getting it wrong. That may be what we call "sin", but it can also be extremely funny. Their real target is those who seek to follow Brian and turn him into the Messiah, which he frequently denies - prompting one of John Cleese's characters to pronounce: "But I say you are the Messiah, and I should know - I've followed a few."

Not only do his followers pursue him, mindlessly repeating together: "Yes, we are all individuals," they also quickly split into groups over trivia such as whether he has given them the gourd or the sandal as his sign. Sadly, the Christian Church has all too frequently exhibited such schisms rather than following Jesus himself.

This satire of political and religious groups' tendency to split into factions, fight each other, and miss the entire point of their founder is also brilliantly depicted in the various "popular fronts" for the liberation of Judaea, who hate each other more than the Romans - especially the group that Brian joins, led by Reg (another typical Cleese character), sending up 1970s trades union meetings.

Many Christians find the mass crucifixion at the end of the film difficult, but it accurately reflects its frequent, brutal use by the Romans. Eric Idle's song "Always look on the bright side of life" may grate, but it confronts us with the meaninglessness of life and death without God, picking up the funeral service and Job's observation that we are born with nothing, and die with nothing (1 Timothy 6.7; Job 1.21).

WHAT made the normally placid Palin incandescent was that he had prepared carefully for Stockwood and Muggeridge, and wanted particularly to discuss the "use and abuse of power by an establishment" (Diaries, 9 November 1979). Instead, the Bishop and the doyen of Private Eye proved how establishments abuse power by belittling the film and refusing to discuss the real significance of Jesus.

The Life of Brian's enduring popularity has patently disproved any accusation of being "tenth-rate". It did make more than "thirty pieces of silver" for the Pythons, and George Harrison, their backer, but they still say that the current O2 reunions events are to pay off various debts.

We, however, missed the chance for a public debate about who Jesus really is, and how he is different from Brian - and from all of us. Amazingly, his person, teaching, and life still fascinate millions, despite the appalling behaviour of his followers over 2000 years.

The time has come to recognise the genius of the Pythons' portrayal of Brian - even if, as his mother says in the film, "He's not the Messiah - he's a very naughty boy" - and to respond positively to their challenge about what it means to follow Jesus.

Canon Richard Burridge is Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation at King's College, London.

A conference, "Jesus and Brian", is being held there 20-22 June (www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/events/jandb/index.aspx).

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