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: