Doesn’t tempus bloody well fugit? Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released 40 years ago, yet it seems like yesterday, I remember it so clearly.
The film caused a scandal in the American Bible Belt, where I then lived. The air was full of words like ‘blasphemy’ and ‘sacrilege’, and the scourges wished upon the heads of the Pythons were as horrific as they were imaginative.
In places like Norway, Ireland and several English counties, the film was banned outright, and Aberystwyth in Wales persisted with the ban until 2009.
Brian is in the news again because The Mail on Sunday has unearthed the archive of Michael Palin, one of the film’s stars. It turns out many scenes were cut out of the script on legal advice – in those days one could still be prosecuted for blasphemy.
One such scene featured a waiter at the Last Supper who tries to seat Jesus and his apostles, telling them: “I can do you two tables for two and two threes.”
In another, King Herod is described as “the world’s worst babysitter”. In yet another, embarrassed Joseph tries to explain the Virgin Birth to his winking-nudging friends.
Just think: a mere 40 years ago such jokes could lead to criminal prosecution. Today hardly anyone would bat an eyelid – we, even practising Christians, have had most of our blasphemy sensors cauterised.
I’m one such, which I admit only on condition that my priest isn’t going to hear about this. I may suffer from a hypertrophied sense of humour, but Life of Brian makes me laugh, rather than see red.
The scenes mentioned above are funny and, by any reasonable standards, rather innocuous. As are the scenes that actually made it into the film.
One I recall involves a parody of the Sermon on the Mount, with multitudes gathering en masse. Since sound couldn’t then be amplified, those in the back struggled to hear properly. Hence the following dialogue took place:
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers’”.
“Ah. What’s so special about the cheese-makers?”
“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
I know I’m supposed to be offended by this. But I am not. I just laugh.
Unsmiling people who actually do feel outrage allow such humour less latitude than Jesus himself did. He singled out as an unforgivable sin only blasphemy against the Holy Ghost:
“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.”
One likes to believe that Christianity, unlike, say, Islam, is strong enough to withstand a little good-natured fun poked at its expense. After all, our founding religion has survived schisms, splits, dozens of major heresies and God knows how many minor ones. Christianity also managed to live through vicious persecutions, by emperors, caliphs, commissars et al.
As to mockery within Christendom itself, it goes back to at least the Renaissance. Read Boccaccio, Aretino, Rabelais or Chaucer, who were all Christians, and you’ll find an endless gallery of lustful, venal monks, nuns and priests.
Compared to the output of those writers, Monty Python’s little jokes tickle, rather than cut. Still, some people, those whose Christian sensibilities are stronger than mine and sense of humour weaker, may get offended.
As I would be, if I didn’t find Monty Python hilarious. After all, the capacity to make people laugh must have some redemptive quality.
Much more likely to cause real offence is unfunny mockery for the sake of mockery, such as that exemplified by the French satirist Léo Taxil (d. 1907) and his once popular sneering books The Amusing Bible and The Life of Jesus.
Even worse are supposedly serious, but in fact always spurious, attacks on Christianity by those who don’t even bother to conceal their visceral hatred of it.
One could mention here, inter alia, Polly Toynbee, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, the late Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens, Lewis Wolpert and many others, whose name is legion.
These people take it upon themselves to concoct ‘rational’ arguments against Christianity without bothering to understand it and learn about it.
That task has made stronger thinkers than these sound feeble, as anyone who has read Nietzsche’s book The Anti-Christ will confirm. But at least Nietzsche attacked Christianity for what it actually is, rather than the fake picture of it those other critics see in their mind’s eye.
However, people who are outraged by Life of Brian won’t be dismissed lightly. They maintain that there should be one thing in our anomic, deracinated world that lies beyond the reach of humour. People who ask “Is nothing sacred anymore?” know that question is rhetorical, and they’re upset.
Such staunch believers have strong arguments on their side, and I respect both them and their arguments. In fact, I’ve been known to make some of the same points myself.
Yet – yet I can’t help laughing at Life of Brian. And I can’t for the life of me force myself to be offended by it.