Thursday, January 04, 2007

Twenty-Eight years later and there's plenty of Life in Brian

Monty Python are great. I love sitting down and watching their eccentric, off the wall, irreverent humour. As I’m also partial to mediocre time-filling talking heads programmes I was pleased to flick over to the ‘Secret life of Monty Python’ on Channel 4 the other day which focused on the making of and controversy surrounding the Life of Brian. I’ve seen Life of Brian many times and it’s one of my favourite films. However, as people who have watched it with me will testify, apart from the first time I saw it I always leave the room with about ten minutes to go. This coincides with the crucifixion of Brian to the song of ‘Always look on the Bright side of Life’.

When Life of Brian first came out in the UK in 1979 many Christians, led by Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light movement (which was later renamed CARE) tried to get the film banned because of it’s ‘blasphemous’ nature, particularly the last few minutes. Although it was classified as an AA (14 years plus) certificate a significant minority of local authorities did refuse to show the picture as they were legally entitled to do. Watching the Channel 4 programme made me wonder whether a 26 year old Jonathan Chilvers would have been amongst those campaigning for the film to be banned in 1979 or not. Britain twenty-eight years ago was a very different place and the group of churches to which I belong has some roots in the Festival of Light movement and many Christians at the time felt that the vestiges of Christian Britain needed to be defended and boundaries drawn.

Although it has its downsides, generally I feel fortunate that I have been born into a post-Christian culture and a non-Christian upbringing which means that I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything boundaries or traditions to defend. I don’t feel that I have to make a last ditch effort to man the barricades to stop the tide of secularism and apathy flooding our religious shore. Instead I can focus my energies on proclaiming the central message of Christianity through what I say and do. My central confidence means that if God is true then he is big enough to take whatever people choose to throw at him. As Joel Edwards, head of the Evangelical Alliance (an umbrella group of churches) put it:

“Earlier this year[2006] the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon about terrorism being a form of blasphemy, because it suggests that God is too weak to look after His own honour. The terrorist feels they have to step in with violence to do His work for Him.

I think that sometimes we have engaged in a form of verbal terror that has the same roots. Evangelicals must recognise that we can be secure in our faith in God, and this security then frees us to be risky and curious at the same time...[we need to] resist the knee-jerk tendency to protest everything(sic)… our role is not to monitor mischief but to proclaim this good news that brings spiritual and social transformation to society.”

I am relieved that twenty five years on I am able to sit down and watch ‘Life of Brian’ as often as I want and that the Pythons were allowed to poke fun at religion. Like all of human life religion throws up comical situations and humour can be a great way to cut through pomp, posturing and arrogance. How did acting as a holier-than-thou defensive pressure group help more people see and hear the central message of Christianity? It didn’t. Christianity is not about forcing people to conform to moral standards they don’t agree with in order that Christians feel safe and happy in the world.

Paul says in the Bible that ‘everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial’. I don’t watch the last ten minutes of Life of Brian because visual and aural memories can be very powerful and long lasting. I don’t have many visual images of crucifixion in my mind and I don’t think it’s beneficial to my daily walk with God to have that sequence of film and song in my head when I’m praying or thinking about the death of Jesus. I’m not offended, I just don’t think it’s helpful for my subconscious concept of God and my relationship with Him. It’s probably not beneficial to other people’s view of God either and part of me wishes that people didn’t see ten minutes of film that may contribute to them dismissing a part of Christianity which could have a huge impact on their lives. However, individual free will and responsibility is a vital component of the Christian message and one that fed into the enlightenment idea of liberalism and a free press. It’s a concept that I would never want to obscure and Christians must find ways to challenge people’s attitudes towards Jesus within this context through what they say and do.

On the Channel 4 programme Terry Gillam wondered aloud whether in the current climate of religious groups loudly taking offence, a film such as Life of Brian would still be commissioned. I don’t know what I would have said in 1979, but if the remaining Pythons ever want to make anything even half as good as the Life of Brian I’ll be watching.


  1. What did you think of that interview where Muggeridge and Stockwood were, well I felt embarrased as a Christian and my dislike of Stockwood (who was actually a liberal) means I can't be properly objective!

  2. I always remember one of the Pythons saying that a bishop had accused them of making a blasphemous film and they challenged him to say why. He said, "Well, Brian is clearly supposed to be Jesus". Anyway, apparently he'd missed the very first bit of the film where the wise men visit the wrong stable, and presumably also the bit where Brian appears in the crowd at the sermon on the mount.

    I think it's mainly a film about the laughable stupidity of very pious religious people, the destructive effect of the unthinking mob and about the way that sensible people's words can be misunderstood.

    (But then I'm not sure if there even is such a thing as blasphemy. It sounds a crazy idea because I would have thought God was very well able to stand up for Himself and would rather we spent time righting wrongs committed against each other than those supposedly against Him?)

  3. Paul,
    Yes, I also feel embarrassed watching the interview, although I am aware that they always tell the story from the Pythons point of view. You never see the full interview, only the bits that make Muggeridge and Stockwood look bad, so I feel that I can't comment fully.

    I agree with your comment in brackets about blashephemy. Deliberately mocking God doesn't suggest a very good relationship with God, but other people being offended supposedly on behalf of God (but really for themselves) is not going to challenge that view.

    I have heard the thing about Bishop Stockwood missing the first part of the film too and it's in the Wikipedia entry for Life of Brian, so it must be true :) It doesn't beat the guy from Harrogate banning it without having seen it!

  4. "Yes, I also feel embarrassed watching the interview, although I am aware that they always tell the story from the Pythons point of view. You never see the full interview, only the bits that make Muggeridge and Stockwood look bad, so I feel that I can't comment fully."

    True indeed, although I think Stockwood's comment about thirty pieces of silver was somewhat crass and unbecoming of him. That said, as you yourself stated there are two sides of the same coin and I think I allow my natural dislike of the likes of Mervyn Stockwood to get the better of me here