Hi and welcome back! Today being the day before Easter and all, I wanted to highlight one of the best bits of blasphemy ever made: 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian. This movie highlights so much of the obviously made-up parts of Christianity. And it’s not just regular ole blasphemy, either. It’s intelligent, thoughtful dissension dressed up in silly costumes and voices. It’s the exact kind of mockery that Christians then — and I’m sure now — hated most. Let’s look at some of the outcry Christians made against the movie, and how it emerged triumphant over their outright control-grabs.
The Basics: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
After Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out and did well, Eric Idle (a member of British comedy troupe Monty Python, whose members are informally known as “Pythons” or “a Python”) joked that their next movie would be titled Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. The title was a riff on the title of a 1970 movie about George Patton. At the time, the Pythons hadn’t actually thought much about what their next movie would involve. However, that joke turned out to be a good idea. They went to work on it around 1976.
Eventually, the Pythons decided to build the movie around the fictional character of Brian Cohen. Brian is a 1st-century Judean guy who gets pegged as the Messiah. However, he doesn’t want to lead anybody, much less a bunch of religious wackadoodles. After a comedy of errors-style bunch of mishaps, the Romans crucify Brian. As Brian dies alongside other crucified victims, they sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
All through Brian’s life, he brushes up against the (scare quotes) “real” Messiah. For example, at his birth the Wise men visit him first by accident before making their way to the properly-lit manger and the brightly-halo’d Mary and Joseph.
Really, the movie rarely rises to the level of actual blasphemy. At no point does it actually declare outright that the Bible’s presentation of Jesus looks a lot like a conjob or that Christianity is a bunch of nonsense mostly made up on the fly. It doesn’t really even dispute Christians’ folklore about Jesus or Christianity.
Rather, it offers some gentle advice:
Stop seeking messiah-like figures to follow. If not corrected quickly, little mistakes build up to huge ones. If we aren’t willing to think for ourselves, we can bumble into a lot of trouble. Blind faith ain’t a great way to run one’s life.
But those were more than enough for control-lusting religious wackadoodles. Authoritarians cannot stand mockery.
Oh Noes! Life of Brian = BLASPHEMY!
When Life of Brian first came out, England’s movie authorities refused at first to grant it a certificate for general release. When Monty Python made some cuts to it, they relented and passed it.
Interestingly, the British Board of Film Classification, or BBFC, itself came about in 1912 after a movie got made about the life of Jesus and sparked a fury among the nation’s Christians. The BBFC isn’t actually an official government agency itself. However, it wields considerable power all the same. Oh, and don’t miss that link’s list of offenses that the BBFC particularly dislikes. They’re extremely vague about religious stuff, but interestingly specific about sexual stuff. Initially, the BBFC’s “C” stood for “Censorship,” but by 1984 they’d changed the name to “Classification.” But it’s very clear that the BBFC was still all about that C(ensorin’).
Even after the BBFC passed the Life of Brian with an AA rating (like America’s PG-13), no fewer than 39 local areas in the UK refused to show it — or rated it “X.” One of these, Glasgow, only lifted their ban on the movie in 2009! Another, Bournemouth, relented in 2015.
I’ve turned up info about a UK lawsuit from 1976 that influenced Monty Python considerably in their marketing of their new movie. In it, some Christian scold filed suit against the publisher of a poem about a Roman centurion having gay sexytimes with Jesus Christ. UK courts sided with the scold on it; the publisher almost went to prison. Fearing similar repercussions for their movie, the Pythons premiered Life of Brian in the United States.
Christians Tried Their Best to Cancel Life of Brian.
Authoritarians just love cancel culture — as long as they’re doin’ the cancelin’!
So predictably, Christians, Muslims, and Jews protested massively against it, we learn from a vintage Guardian piece. Ain’t that nice to see all these religious people coming together at last? Terry Gilliam, one of the Pythons, sure thought so.
Indeed, the Guardian tells us that Christian leaders lined up to slam the movie. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York even took some time out from shielding and shuffling around child-rapists to call Life of Brian blasphemous. They declared that the movie was a “crime against religion which holds the person of Christ up to comic ridicule.” It doesn’t, but whatever. (Only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are allowed to make a total mockery of their Savior through their behavior, y’all!)
Irish Times describes “the Ireland that banned Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” In it, we learn that Jews weren’t thrilled with it either. Infamous scold Mary Whitehouse “spearheaded” a number of protests in the England against Life of Brian. But nobody needed to do much to protest it in Ireland, cuz Ireland (and Norway) banned the movie out of hand.
How That Outrage Worked Out for Religious Control Freaks.
And in the end, the movie got out anyway. Free speech won out over religious control-grabs.
Years later, all those religious leaders now treasure only the tattered memories of their onetime dominance over America and the UK. Oh, and they try to dodge nonstop scandals that go back decades. In even the vintage articles I’ve seen, their antics around Life of Brian only highlighted — for others at least — how ridiculous religious control-grabs really are. Nobody outside of these religious cultures missed that lesson, even at the time.
Monty Python, meanwhile, laughed all the way to the bank. Their movie did marvelously well. John Cleese, another Python, wondered aloud if he should send all those outraged religious people “a box of champagne or something.”
One bit of news, to me, speaks the most loudly about Christians’ loss of dominance. Recently, the BBFC lowered the age limit on the movie. Now, they consider the movie’s statements “permissible at a more junior category.”
Their new rating, 12A, reflects their concerns about “infrequent strong language, moderate sex references, nudity and comic violence.” They express no concern whatsoever about the more irreverent aspects of the movie.
The Ask That’s Worth Considering.
Thankfully, Christians eventually lost their power to cancel much of anything. They must now compete in the religious marketplace — and the social-dominance one — in their own right. They no longer enjoy the propping-up they got for free with various coercive powers they used to hold. Those powers dissipated mightily over the past 40 years — and largely because everyone else figured out that Christians never use their power wisely or well.
Indeed, Life of Brian represents something more important than anything Christians have ever had on offer.
It’s actually worth the 90 minutes Monty Python asks of viewers. It contains a message that is actually worth remembering and considering.
Most of all, its real message, think for yourself, works completely against Christian ambitions of ultimate control.
It’s what we needed to hear in 1979. And it’s still what we need to hear today.
NEXT UP: Yes, of course another religious whackjob got caught dick-deep in yet another sex scandal. The one swirling into shape around Republican Matt Gaetz is so bad that it’s even made Donald Trump shut the f*#& up. (Just imagine the breathtaking implications of that fact!) These scandals do not represent an aberration. No. Rather, they are exactly what we ought to expect out of deeply-authoritarian Christians seeking power over others. We’ll talk about it tomorrow — see you then!
We won’t be doing a formal R2D review of this movie because mostly it’d look like: “Yes, that’s right, so is that, that’s nice too.” Its level of historical rigor is astonishing as well. So, I heartily suggest you catch it if you can. Currently, it’s streaming on Netflix.
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