Something funny about crucifixion

On location with Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Earlier this year, London’s TimeOut released the results of a poll ranking the “100 Best Comedy Movies,” and coming in at #3 — just after This Is Spinal Tap (#1) and Airplane! (#2) — was the 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, I probably saw it several times upon its first release and the years immediately afterward. Of the three official Monty Python films, it’s the one that holds together the best (and contains a lovely Chaplin-esque performance from Graham Chapman as Brian), and I have a feeling that it, like the other two of the top-three comedies, retains its strengths, even 40 years later.

Its interest, too, remains. In June 2014, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London hosted an international conference exploring the historical Jesus and his times through the lens of the Python satire. Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones also participated in the conference, and the results were released in book form in 2015 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark as Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, edited by conference organizer and King’s College Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism Joan E. Taylor. It’s a cracking good read, too.

Mind you, the idea behind the book doesn’t suggest a rip-roaring page-turner. The conference and collection are experiments in “reception history,” a comparatively recent development in Biblical Studies. As John F.A. Sawyer defines it, reception history assumes that “what people believe [the Bible] means and how they actually use it — in everyday situations, in the liturgy, in preaching, in the media, in literature, in art, in music, in film — can be studied with the same degree of scientific sensitivity and rigor as the original,” and that this study can, in the words of Paul Joyce, “shine a spotlight on biblical verses that have been dulled by familiarity; it can foreground biblical concepts and concerns that have faded over time into the background; and it can even give rise to new readings of difficult Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms.” In short, it can deepen our insight into the texts of the Bible themselves, how people live with and without the Bible, and, perhaps for some of us, provide different perspectives on Christian and Judaic faith.

The first half of the book looks at the film itself, its production and contemporary reception. In doing so, it reveals a few fascinating perspectives that may not have been obvious at the time. In Taylor’s own “The Historical Brian: Reception Exegesis in Practice,” she reminds us that Brian’s trip with aliens through the Terry-Gilliamesque skies may have been a parodic reference to Erich von Dänekin’s 1968 spurious potboiler Chariots of the Gods?, which suggested that extraterrestrial beings visited the ancient world and left behind structures that remain mysterious (fun fact: its German editor, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, was a best-selling author himself during the Nazi era); a documentary based on the book was released in the US in 1972, narrated by Rod Serling. William R. Telford’s essay looks at Life of Brian as a parody of the “Jesus film,” intriguingly asking whether it’s a “Jesus film,” an “anti Jesus-film,” or an “anti-Jesus film”; Anglican Bishop Richard A. Burridge looks back at the controversy that surrounded the film upon its original release in “The Church of England’s Life of Brian — or ‘What the Bishop Saw,'” asking “whether the Church and the academy missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to debate the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth in wider society,” as well as addressing a decline in biblical literacy in the years between 1979 and today; and David Tollerson offers thoughts on what blasphemy means in the Bible, in 1979, and today. In my favorite essay so far, Philip R. Davies’ “The Gospel of Brian,” the founder of what we might call “Brian Studies”1 compares the Christ of history with the Brian of history, revealing considerable wit and style in the process. Interesting observations about the cheerful nihilism of the end of the film abound. The second half of the book delves more deeply into issues of Biblical scholarship and archaeology, as well as questions of sexuality and Jewish identity that Life of Brian raises.

I can already see you yawning, but you shouldn’t; all of the contributors are fully aware that they’re engaged in the frog-dissecting business of analyzing a movie that was meant as entertainment, as a comedy, and by and large their tone remains as light and irreverent as that of the Pythons themselves. John Cleese, who participated in the conference, said, “I think it was somebody who said you were going to say, ‘What was the most interesting part that came out of Pythons?’ and as far as I’m concerned it’s this conference.” Terry Jones, the co-director of the film, echoed Cleese’s comment with an “Absolutely,” and contributed a preface to the collection in which he concludes, “The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries are right on the nose.”

There’s no evidence in the Bible to indicate that Jesus ever laughed; this is a point that Cleese himself brought up at the conference. He wept, yes, according to John 11:35; but never an indication that he chortled, or even smiled. On the other hand, if Christ was fully human, it’s hard to believe he didn’t, with the apostles or with the money-changers and prostitutes with whom he often shared dinner. This is, though, nothing to be surprised at. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres composed over 500 years — of laws, of history, of letters, of poems — everything except jokebooks, it appears; but jokebooks are a rather late development.

If God invented everything, as some would have it, he invented satire and humor, too. In the end, we have G.K. Chesterton’s most interesting observation, from Orthodoxy:

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

The film Monty Python’s Life of Brian and this collection of essays may remind us of that. It’s something completely different, and worth a moment or two of reflection.


A few interesting videos mentioned in the book are below. The first is the 1979 debate between Pythons Cleese and Michael Palin versus Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood, broadcast on the BBC:

And, just to prove that parody is not beyond parody, here’s a satire of the same conversation — with Rowan Atkinson defending his film, Life of Christ, on the same basis that Cleese and Palin defended theirs — a little later on Not the Nine O’Clock News:

Augustine’s “love” and William Gaddis’s Wyatt Gwyon

I said earlier this week that art was one of the things that led me to faith, and in a short essay last July which is published below, I wrote:

From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?

In Reza Aslan’s 2013 book about the historical Christ, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he writes about the culture of Christ’s time in the Middle East of the first century CE. “The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time — so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite. … Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. … [The] picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an area awash in messianic energy.” And you don’t have to trust either myself or Aslan; the same culture was accurately and more entertainingly depicted in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. (There’s even a 2015 book testifying to the film’s accuracy, among other things: Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, by Joan E. Taylor.)

There can be many responses to the questions that end this post that don’t involve faith, that explain the enduring power and influence of Christianity in the minds and works of the great western artists. Perhaps the uniqueness of the Christ story and its archetypal qualities have had a special, continuing Jungian appeal to the Western world and the Western creative mind in particular. Perhaps the Christ story was manipulated in a variety of power plays among sects and elites to maintain their own social power, and that the story was particularly effective in doing so; the powerful knew this and commissioned religious art accordingly. But then one must ask: Why Christ, if he was only one of hundreds of similar preachers and prophets? Why him, and not others whom Aslan cites?

In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowed himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome. … There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba — all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were killed for doing so.

There is historical evidence for the existence of all of these figures, along with Christ. But, except in places like Aslan’s book, they are not remembered, and certainly have not given rise to great art or churches.

I think if one is to genuinely keep an open mind about the matter, one must also consider, among the possibilities I mentioned above, that the Christ story is true: Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, all of it, and that in some sense these artists’ imaginations were infused with something we can only call, in this case, the Holy Spirit. One can’t now question these artists to discover their inspiration, of course; most of them are long dead. But something of that inspiration remains in their art. And it may be, among other things, particular evidence of Christ’s truth.

The below was written in July 2016.


Wyatt Gwyon (also known as Stephen Asche), the central character of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, departs from the novel on page 900, when there’s about another hundred pages to go. He is in Spain carrying a box which holds earrings that belonged to his mother, who died when he was a young boy, and Wyatt/Stephen is preparing to give them to his own infant daughter. Steven Moore in William Gaddis glosses the episode:

Not until the last page on which he appears does he realize the importance of the earrings; by intending to pass them along to his daughter, he demonstrates his recognition of the emotions and especially the strongest, most liberating emotion of all, love. Not the sentimental love of romantics, nor the lust of sensualists: the kind of love Wyatt embraces is less eros than agapē — charity, attentiveness, caring. “–Charity’s the challenge,” Wyatt had admitted earlier, but not until the end of the novel is he psychologically prepared to commit himself to this challenge. It is crucial to note that the Augustinian motto Wyatt chooses reads “Dilige et quod vis fac” (“Love, and do what you want to”), not the more popular form “Amo et fac quod vis” — that is, Wyatt prefers the verb meaning “to esteem and care for” over that meaning “to love passionately.” This is the kind of love recommended in Eliot’s Four Quartets; for Wyatt it represents a new beginning, not an end, for as Eliot argues, this form of love never ceases to be a challenge. (Moore 52)

But in terms of mottoizing, Wyatt/Stephen isn’t quite done. As he slowly bids farewell to Ludy, an acquaintance, and the novel, he engages in a small bit of illuminating dialogue:

Stephen’s throat caught, looking down at the figure on the ground struggling to get up. –Yes … His eyes blurred on the figure older each instant of looking down at that struggle, and the hand where the blood lost all saturation. –Goodbye, hear? the bells, the old man ringing me on. Now at last, to live deliberately.

–But …

–What!

–You and I …

–No, there’s no more you and I, Stephen said withdrawing uphill slowly, empty-handed.

–But we … all the things you’ve said, we … the work, the work you were, working on … ?

–The work will know its own reason, Stephen said farther away, and farther, –Hear … ? Yes, we’ll simplify. Hear? … (Gaddis 900)

Wyatt/Stephen’s final motto, then — Love, and do what you want to; live deliberately; simplify — echoes those of Saint Augustine and Henry David Thoreau. Whether or not this makes him a Christian, though, he reaches it through Christianity. At the moment of his greatest despair about halfway through the book, he demands of his father, a Calvinist minister slipping into madness, “Am I the man for whom Christ died?” (Gaddis 440, italics in the original) He never receives an answer. The novel, though, as a whole, might be considered a response. Just prior to his disappearance, he considers his motto in light of the Incarnation. (I don’t have the novel with me at the moment, but turn to page 899 of the Dalkey Archive reprint — it’s there. In a 1986 interview, Gaddis said of that passage, “Wyatt’s line … says that one must simply live through the corruption, even become part of it” — which is Christ’s attitude towards his own suffering in the Gospel of John.) The novel itself ends 100 pages later, with a Roman Catholic composer, Stanley, performing an organ mass which leads to the collapse of a cathedral around him.

Moore’s citation of Eliot’s Four Quartets is instructive. Eliot is a major influence on The Recognitions, and not just his final poem. Perhaps the greatest influence on the structure of the novel is The Waste Land — a portrait of a Western culture in its final decline, corrupted by fraudulence in its intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic endeavors. (The novel and the poem have endured, in part, because things haven’t changed.) Though Four Quartets is undoubtedly a Christian poem, and Eliot a Christian — and passages from the poem are woven intricately through the novel — the same can’t quite be said for The Recognitions, Wyatt, or Gaddis himself. But it can’t be dismissed, either. “We come back to the Faust story and to the original Clementine Recognitions, which has been called the first Christian novel (I remember thinking mine was going to be the last one),” Gaddis told the interviewer as he discussed his intentions in The Recognitions. Though an off-hand comment to the Paris Review isn’t very much to hang an interpretation on, it does illuminate both the character of Wyatt Gwyon and the overarching satiric perspective of the book, at least during its composition.

I mention all this as a casual meditation about the influence of Christianity on Western art of the past 1,000 years. From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?