I AM an example of that relatively rare phenomenon: the adult convert to Christianity. Perhaps surprisingly, a factor in my journey towards faith was a once controversial film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. This year, Life of Brian is 40 years old, while Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose great comedy troupe included John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The film’s 40th anniversary presents an opportunity to consider again not only Brian’s enduring popularity, but its missional opportunities; for it remains — for people like me, at least — a vital and often overlooked opportunity for conversations about the nature of faith, fanaticism, and religion.
THE concept for Life of Brian began, appropriately enough, as a joke. When asked how the Pythons would follow the success of their 1974 Arthurian comedy The Holy Grail, Eric Idle joked: “With Jesus Christ: Lust for glory.” By 1979, this joke had become a film centred not on Jesus, but on one Brian Cohen, a bewildered young man born on the same day as Jesus, who, after a series of accidents, is mistaken for the Messiah.
When it was released, Mary Whitehouse and others campaigned against the film on religious grounds. The controversy was sealed, however, by a notorious encounter on BBC2 on Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, in November 1979, between Cleese and Palin, in one corner, and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and Malcolm Muggeridge in the other. Even as a nine-year-old child, I was aware of the argument. It ensured that, in the midst of calls for the film to be banned, it became a must-see.
Rewatching the argument between the Pythons and Stockwood and Muggeridge is cringe-inducing. Muggeridge, then a recent Christian convert, called Brian “tenth-rate” and a “squalid little number”. Stockwood — dramatic and grand as ever — described the film as “blasphemy”. It is extraordinary to witness the comedians’ bringing dignity and patience to bear where Stockwood and Muggeridge were supercilious. As so often, the representatives of the Church came across as priggish, whereas the Pythons carefully clarified that Christ — who appears briefly at the beginning of the film — is represented in a respectful way. It is those who misunderstand his message who are lampooned.
Forty years on, The Life of Brian’s reputation as a comedy classic is intact. Certainly, much of its humour is full of childish delight in the strategic use of the f-word. It is also very silly. Yet, if much of its satire is broad-brush, its blows fall with accuracy. It captures the fissile character of both left-wing politics and religion. In a single two-minute segment, as Brian’s followers argue over whether his lost shoe or his abandoned gourd is a “sign from God”, the film shows the ease with which the religious disagree over iconography.
I FIRST watched the film as an atheist teenager in the mid-1980s. I adored its irreverence. It also provoked conversation, however. I was fortunate to be taught theology and philosophy by teachers who were alert to cinema’s ability to aid religious understanding. In the sixth form, we discussed films such as The Mission, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Life of Brian.
As a teenager, I was a shrill advocate of atheism. At the time, I deployed Life of Brian as a film that revealed the idiocies of religion. Yet, in hindsight, its handling of human frailty and our need for meaning was part of what enabled me to come to faith. Its early scenes present Christ’s Sermon on the Mount without mockery. Rather, the film mocks the human capacity to twist goodness for vain and pompous ends. It takes pot-shots at the Establishment’s self-importance. It helped me to delineate the difference between God and us, his fragile creatures.
I shall also be for ever thankful for the film’s sheer silliness. I know that some struggle with the ending, which shows the crucified cast singing “Always look on the bright side of life”. The film is a lesson, however, in how to handle offence well. I remain convinced that part of our calling as Christians is to keep our perceptions of blasphemy in perspective. God is not, I think, readily offended. Usually, we are.
I suspect that the Pythons would be amazed that their knockabout film about misplaced faith could be a form of quiet evangelism. Perhaps I am odd in finding its permissive humour a gift to faith. But I suspect that I am not alone. In an era in which church growth is the main focus, the reactions of Muggeridge et al. to Life of Brian are salutary. All of us misread the opportunities that God gives us to keep conversations of hope going between people of faith and no faith.
My hope is that, should a contemporary equivalent to Brian ever come along, the Church will be more open in its response.
Canon Rachel Mann is the Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester.