Saturday, January 24, 2015

Monty Python's Life of Brian: How Is This a "Jesus Film"?

On Wednesday nights at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, WA, we’ve been enjoying a Jesus Film Festival for the season of Epiphany: films that help illuminate the life of Christ in a variety of ways. When our gathered audience heard that one of the films featured would be Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and furthermore that I would happen to be away at a conference the week it was shown (?!), one person asked me to compile some thoughts to guide a post-film discussion. How does a film this silly and profane qualify as a “Jesus film”?

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this until you have seen the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

No, really. It's OK to laugh at our faith!
I have long believed that it is healthy to laugh at our own faith. For one thing, if we can’t laugh at our own faith, we certainly have no right to laugh at anyone else’s—and how much fun could we have then? So, indeed, in Life of Brian, “blessed are the cheese makers.” But as for the meek inheriting the earth—well, one man in Jesus’ audience grumbles, “Everyone knows the meek are the problem!” Hearing the Sermon on the Mount from the perspective of the crowd in attendance opens me up to a lot of questions about the world in which Jesus lived.

After all, how many other films approach the cultural context of the Bible in an imaginative way? Perhaps Life of Brian and Ben Hur stand alone in this field. Rather than focusing on events in the life of Jesus, Life of Brian enters the world around Jesus and asks all sorts of playful questions. Would a punitive stoning have been regarded as a day’s entertainment? What was it like to be the illegitimate child of a Jew and a Roman? Despite their renowned cruelty, were the Romans generally held in high regard for the advances they made in health, technology, communication, and general ordering of society? When a leper healed by Jesus couldn’t beg anymore, how might he have made a living? And perhaps most crucially, how did the Roman musicians hold up those ridiculously long trumpets?

Poor Brian. He never catches a break.
Except, perhaps, from aliens from outer space.
Life of Brian also looks at resistance movements in light of human nature. When we see the People’s Front of Judea scorning the Judean People’s Front, the divisions in our present-day political movements and faith communities are reflected back at us. How hard can it be for people with different opinions to work together to resist a common enemy? Ask the members of Congress and the president to work together for peace. Ask the police officers and protesters of Ferguson, Missouri, to work together for justice.

We hear that there were many people in Jesus’ time claiming to be the Messiah, but I don’t know a thing about any of the others. Was it really so easy to get people to follow—as easy as standing on a street corner shouting? When we see Brian’s followers split into those who “follow the gourd” and those who “follow the shoe,” we laugh at their superstitious nature. But how easy would it be for you to just switch to another faith, even one that’s only marginally different from your own? Have you ever visited a Christian church that was so different, you felt completely out of place and overwhelmed with the sense that “this is just wrong”?

Most of all, I’m struck by Brian’s excoriation of the crowd that follows him: “Think for yourselves! You don’t need to follow anyone!” The crowd laps up his words eagerly, but then continues hounding him as their divine leader. Jesus, too, wanted us to think for ourselves. When he was asked, “Should we pay taxes to the Romans?,” he put the question back in the questioners’ laps: “Figure out what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God. Then pay it.” Of course, the merest examination of their faith would remind them that everything belongs to God, but Jesus still hasn’t told them precisely what to do. He has only given them a frame in which to hang their picture.

Jesus continually pointed beyond himself to the Father: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But this fact does not endanger an understanding of Jesus’ divinity; it only suggests that humility is a divine quality. St. Paul’s parishioner Natalie Greene remarked on Facebook this week, “Christ works so humbly that non-believers also do His work.” So we, too, if we are to follow Christ, are to think for ourselves—that is, we are to listen to the wisdom of others, but ultimately come to faith within ourselves, as we listen for God’s direction in our lives.

OK, everybody sing it together now!
The closing scene of the movie, famous for its cynicism, pokes fun at the blind optimism that might drive someone to sing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Blithe platitudes don’t help anyone, least of all those who are suffering, and rarely has this been made clearer than in Life of Brian. The hapless Brian has lived a life alternately marked by luck and misfortune, but consistently marked by misunderstanding and lack of control. Likewise, with a little examination, we find that we are not so different from Brian. We only have the illusion of control over our lives. And we might even be left with the question: “Does God redeem fictional characters? Is there some divine hope for Brian? If so, can it be that there is also divine hope for me?”

But if you don't believe me, there's also this recent piece from The Telegraph. I hope you enjoyed the film!

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