Monty Python’s Life of Brian Will Make You a Better Christian
You read the title right. We’re talking about the 1979 Monty Python film The Life of Brian. For our December season this year, we had to pick one geek movie to talk about, and really, this movie is as devoutly Christian as a geek movie gets. The fact that it provoked outrage and banning at the time, the fact that it still raises hackles to this day, the fact that some of you are already mailing us bomb threats, just proves the movie’s point.
But first, let me establish some credentials:Your humble author was raised Evangelical Christian. In fact, I went to school under the banner of the exact same “charismatic” sect of Evangelical Christians that would later be featured in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. Lest you feel compelled to inquire as to my well-being, let me assure you that I survived the experience relatively unscathed and ditched the scene before it could do too much damage. Any one of my romantic partners could assure you that I carry no psychological scars from this experience, a fact which they would testify the minute I took the ball-gag out of their mouth.
Most of what I’m about to point out about The Life of Brian is either directly stated or at least inferred in the Pythons’ landmark BBC interview about the movie. You can watch the whole thing here, couched in the silky voice of a BBC talk show host:
So Life of Brian is in keeping with the Python tradition of sharp social satire. The fact that, this one time, that satire was directed at the church, is the source of controversy that causes close-minded views of it to this day. What a pity. This holiday season, we’d like to rectify this gross error and welcome Life of Brian as one of the most devout Christian movies ever made, worthy of being the subject of sermons, and certainly fit holiday viewing during the Christmas season.
The following are objective statements of facts (SPOILERS, by the way):
Brian is not Jesus
This fact is made abundantly clear not once, but twice, by having Brian and Jesus present in the same two scenes. In the opener, the Three Wise Men (Magi, to you) familiar from every elementary school pageant mistakenly visit Brian before recovering their mistake and heading for the manger next door. Then later Brian is shown attending The Sermon on the Mount, preached by Jesus.
At no time is Jesus himself the target of any ridicule; the Pythons themselves state that they decided that there was nothing inherently funny about Jesus. Instead, it was those who call themselves his followers, and the culture of that period of history, that is the butt of all the jokes.
There is no prohibition in the bible against criticizing your church
There’s an important point that lots of religious people, Christians included, seem to be confused on. In the Judeo-Christian bible, the Ten Commandments are quite clear about not questioning God, but say nothing about not questioning your church.
Indeed, the New Testament is chock full of incidents where the church was rightfully taken to task, most notably by Jesus himself, who took a whuppin’ to moneychangers in the temple. In fact, Jesus threw a proper snit about the whole thing, dumping out cash boxes and flipping over tables. This event is called “The Cleansing of the Temple,” important enough to be recorded in all four gospels. Let’s examine this situation: merchants were presumably allowed, or at least tolerated, in the temple by the authorities. Jesus, while not challenging the root beliefs of religion, expressed strong opinions about how a church should be run.
This is exactly the same intent of Life of Brian. Throughout the story, the behavior of believers is ruthlessly deconsructed and trashed. The root tenants of the belief in God are not.
For another example, a big chunk of the New Testament is taken up by the Pauline Epistles, letters the Apostle Paul wrote to many churches in the early days of Christianity. These letters are thoughtful editorial essays directed at church leaders, addressing various controversies and even faults within the churches themselves. Paul chastised and warned against false teachers, poor treatment of groups of people, deceptions which would lead the faithful astray, and slacking of duties in leading a Christian life.
In a nutshell, if Jesus and Paul walked into just about any Christian denomination church in the US currently, there can be no doubt that they’d at least have some harsh words for the church leaders, and perhaps a few more tables to flip. In their place, Life of Brian uses humor and dramatization to make the same points.
Dogmatic attitudes are the main target for the satire
The above video at Renegade Cut does a beautiful job of analyzing the core message of Life of Brian. In particular, notice the scene where the crowd is gathered outside the window of the Cohen residence. Earlier on, some followers had an attachment to the gourd Brian dropped, while others place significance on the shoe he dropped when fleeing them. In this scene, we see many followers carrying staves, some with a gourd hanging on them, others a single shoe. The factions have split already!
Likewise, in today’s big tent of Christianity, we see dozens of different sects which have all split from each other. Each seems to have taken away a different part of the scripture to emphasize. This one places the sacredness of reproduction above all else, that one seems to define itself by whom it opposes, and this other one seems preoccupied with commandments associated with diet and fasting. All of them seem to have taken a single verse or two and blown it up to ridiculous proportions.
We see the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount scene doing the same thing to Jesus’ words, twisting and reinterpreting them almost as soon as they’re out of his mouth. Throughout the story, everyone seems too fascinated by the letter of the law to notice the spirit, while they plunge into hypocrisy and double standards without flinching for a second at their absurd twists of logic.
Even worse, whole systems of dogma bloom out of thin air. We’re all familiar with people on Twitter claiming to speak for God while yelling things that God never said. In my analysis of Catholic influences in the horror genre, I give an exhaustive recount showing that nothing about the public perception of Satan, hell, or demon possession comes from a single page of the bible, anywhere!
Life of Brian is based on more fact than you think!
The Monty Python troupe may be history’s most famous comedy act, but their academic legitimacy is nevertheless sound. Throughout their career, they satirize Arthurian legend, philosophy, and history with a wit derived from knowing those subjects firsthand. Life of Brian in no exception…
The “suicide squad” who literally executes themselves uselessly is a reference to the Siege of Masada, where the besieged chose a likewise fate rather than be captured.
The misheard line “blessed are the cheesemakers” references a valley within Jerusalem called, wait for it, “Valley of the Cheesemakers.”
Michael Palin plays a leper who was accustomed to a life of begging before being healed by Jesus, but now he has no idea what to do with himself. This is a reference to the story of the “ungrateful nine,” in which out of ten lepers Jesus healed, only one came back to thank him.
The Life of Brian – watch it with the family this Christmas!
It is quite ironic that Life of Brian is shunned by Christians today, while atheists (who can be just as dogmatic in their own way!) rally around it. The audience is exactly backwards. In creating this dichotomy, Monty Python pull off what I would argue is the capstone of their career. The simple, shining truth of everything wrong with religion as humans implement it is here, waiting patiently for people to discover it.
Truly, the Monty Python troupe should be called “the last true apostles”!