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 …


–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?


None of us can believe in something that we do not assume is somehow true. To do so is an absurdity. And belief in the driving force and cultural power of anything — whether it’s science, art, politics, or philosophy, or some combination of all of these — is always a matter of a decision that one makes, consciously or unconsciously, to acquiesce in its meaning and possibilities. Even the belief that there is no driving force or cultural power in the universe or anywhere else is a belief, and a decision that we make.

There are various modes of evidence for all of these things, of course, but they always lie somehow outside of that belief itself. One can’t prove the truth of science with the scientific method without indulging in solipsism; nor can one posit a belief in the arts or politics or, for that matter, religion, without seeking the basis for that belief somewhere outside of the arts, politics, or religion.

Ultimately, one makes a decision to believe in something. As I said, it’s either conscious or unconscious, and one bases this decision on one’s own personal intellectual, physical, cultural, and spiritual experiences, which are never static but are ever-changing; ultimately, too, we move and behave in the world based on that faith — which is what belief becomes over time — whether we consciously or unconsciously do so. This must mean that there comes a point at which acquiescence in one truth or another, especially that overriding truth of which faith is the result, is something of an epiphany or revelation: something mysteriously outside of everyday time and place. Two metaphors come to mind. First, perhaps this epiphany or revelation is comparable to the clouds parting, the sun shining, and the seraphim descending from heaven to brilliantly light the world. But second, it may be a matter of recognizing (and, more important, hearing and listening too) a still, small voice through which that truth speaks: a quiet whisper in the ear, not an immersive light-and-sound show.

There are as many avenues to faith as there have been individuals who have walked upon the earth, and though various of them share some qualities, none is identical to another. (Indeed, some claim to have genuinely seen angels and heard voices, but for me personally these remain metaphors, though far be it from me to deny those visions and voices.) A friend asked yesterday, “If [you are] no longer agnostic, then what? Exploring?” I responded, “For me the Nicene Creed says it best as a start,” and indeed it is only a start, a first step, but an important one. That was the decision I made last week. More on all this anon — especially about faith and our activities and behaviors in this world, from my own modest perspective — but it was a long and difficult decision to make, and it took me years to make it. The road started a while ago. The below essay from January 2016, provides context.

Yesterday morning I attended the early Holy Eucharist service at a nearby Episcopal church. It was the first time I’d been in a church in about fifteen years; I’d passed this church probably hundreds of times over the past decade located, as it was, only a few blocks from the Strand Book Store, a regular weekend haunt of mine. This time I did not pass it, but stepped indoors for the service.

I blame this deviation from my normal route on poetry — more specifically on T.S. Eliot, more specifically still on his Four Quartets, which I read early in 2015. Though he turned to orthodox Anglican Christianity shortly before the Second World War, Eliot cannot be said to be ignorant of the modern world; indeed, he’s described as a great modernist, not least for his poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Written in the years following the First World War, these poems were almost dementedly modern in their description of the fragmentation, desiccation, and destruction of Europe that seemingly offered no way out (not unlike the world as I see it today). “Ash Wednesday,” the 1930 poem that announced his formal conversion to the Church of England, did not trace a way out so much as a way up.

Eliot’s poems after his conversion did not become more explicit, but they did become more lucid — and lucid, particularly, in the mysteries that they described. They contain much more than can be revealed through only a few readings; their considerations of time and redemption, especially, are swirled rather than concrete (though Eliot’s imagery, as I said earlier, is quite clear). So when, as a consequence, I turned to the Gospels themselves later in the year, I was able to recognize the same power, the same unfathomable sense of mystery that nonetheless, like the Four Quartets, profoundly spoke to my own suspicion that there may be, after all, something beyond this world that nevertheless was profoundly within it and to which mankind had a particularly deep connection, that mankind ignored at its peril. There is something that scripture does to those who read it closely; indeed, two twentieth-century translators of the Gospels, Richmond Lattimore and E.V. Rieu, were transformed from non-believers to believers through their efforts to English them.

I sat in the pew and really came to think that I’d arrived quite in the middle of things. The church I attended is over two hundred years old — more to the point, its community is over two hundred years old, and a church is a local community of souls. I was impressed through the service with the means through which the liturgy combined scripture, tradition, and reason, the three-legged stool upon which Anglicanism and its American cousin the Episcopal church rests (I only, at this point, have observer status, after all). As a newcomer I was quite hesitant to raise my voice — and I think it’ll be some time before I’m confident enough in contributing my own voice to the hymns, merely from an aesthetic consideration — though I did find myself reciting, along with the rest of the congregation, the Lord’s Prayer; at a certain point in the service, you are meant to turn to the others around you and shake their hands in greeting and community. And this I did too, the most natural thing in the world by then.

At the coffee hour after the service I was standing I suppose rather forlornly with a cup of weak tea when I was approached by another newcomer to the church, a young woman recently arrived from West Virginia, and we were able to share observations about being strangers in a strange land (less strange, I think, to her, who was I believe a cradle Episcopalian after all). We were then approached by two rectors of the church who had spotted us as a couple of live ones, and their warm honest welcome was something I don’t come across too much in New York, especially not in the theater where I used to spend much of my time. Ironic, but there you are.

Like other New Yorkers I’m possessive of the personal space around me and I’m not used to embraces — though this was not a physical embrace, it was a warm social and even emotional embrace. As Eliot may have suspected, this is the church’s role. I still don’t know whether or not faith is something you can ever fully possess, doubt being such a strong part of our nature and the world, and us, being what they are. Even Augustine — “I do believe, help thou my unbelief,” he prayed to God — had his moments. But as for the Christian church itself, the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s imaginative statement of the matter in Orthodoxy was borne home to me:

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

So I was thankful for the open arms I was perhaps unduly surprised to find at church yesterday. And thankful, too, that I’d found Four Quartets again when I did.

Religion and art

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets lately, I find it impossible to dismiss or ignore entirely the Christian, and specifically Anglican, dimension of these poems. While the reader of these poems doesn’t necessarily have to share Eliot’s religious belief, only a perfunctory reader can afford to ignore it — reject it or not, that belief has to be engaged. In part I suppose this has to do with explicit intent: Eliot wants to explore hope, and especially redemption, in a fallen world, a hope that inheres only in the Incarnation.

It’s overly convenient to separate out the religious and the art from religious art, and we may be doing both a disservice if we do. The same goes for contemporary composers like Olivier Messiaen, Eliot’s approximate contemporary and similarly an artist driven by belief, specifically Catholic belief. In “Religious Symbolism in the Music of Olivier Messiaen,” Siglind Bruhn wrote, “[Scholars] note with some amazement that his musical language remained strikingly uniform throughout his long life. This constancy arises from a central truth in Messiaen’s character and philosophy. What never changed was the purpose of his creative activity: to praise God, and to share through his music his profound enthusiasm for the Truths of his Catholic faith.”

I needn’t be a professing Anglican or Catholic to enjoy and appreciate Eliot and Messiaen of course; I can do so with my agnosticism firmly in place. But unless I allow Eliot and Messiaen to question and even challenge my agnosticism, I can’t ever fully open myself to either of these artists, because there is the chance — even if, in an age which disparages traditional Christian faith, one insists on remaining faithless if only to be modern — that they’re right. After Eliot and Messiaen, the New Testament?