Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you a funny 1979 movie, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When Life of Brian came out, toxic Christians lost their minds. They demonstrated against it, condemned it, and did their level best to ban and censor it. But 40 years later, it remains one of the funniest movies ever made about religion — and really, it isn’t at all mean to Christians in any way. In fact, the Pythons very obviously went out of their way to be nice to Jesus and Christianity. Today, I offer you a list of all the deferential gestures Life of Brian showed to Christian beliefs and mythology.
The Basic Synopsis of Life of Brian.
A fictional character, Brian Cohen, lives contemporaneously with Jesus in Jerusalem. Starting in infancy, his life intersects with Jesus’. The two men grow up in the same town, experiencing the same oppression by Romans, and they both radicalize in their own way. Brian even dies in a similar fashion to Jesus. The two men leave behind a world forever changed.
The movie’s subplot of the Roman oppression of Jerusalem really took a lot from history. It’s clear that the movie’s director, Terry Jones, an amateur historian of note, took great joy in making as historical as he could. Really, all of the Pythons played roles and contributed behind the camera in ways that made the best of their own signature talents (right down to John Cleese’s uncanny ability to radiate overwhelming arrogance).
The movie even offers audiences an excruciating lesson in Latin grammar! I wonder now if that lesson informed Google Translate’s own rendition of the phrase “Romans, go home!”
Yes, all of that is so.
And yet even so, the rigorously-historical side of Life of Brian blew me away last night in ways I hadn’t even noticed in previous viewings years ago. That rigor and attention to detail made me mourn Jones’ passing last year all over again. This sweetly tongue-in-cheek movie brought 1st-century Jerusalem alive in ways that no slobbering, saccharine, treacle-sticky Gospel movie ever has.
And yet Christians at the time absolutely hated it, as we were saying yesterday. Why? Why why why? Did they not even see it at all? Or did it trip their antiprocess defenses so quickly they couldn’t push past their aggrieved authoritarian control-lust to perceive its real message? Maybe its message was just that deeply antithetical to their own culture and collective psyche.
Life of Brian.
I fell in love with Life of Brian as a high-schooler in the 1980s. There exist many kinds of high-school nerds, each with their own subculture: marching band nerds, chess nerds, STEM nerds, and my own crowd, drama nerds. Monty Python was the drama nerd thang back then. We absolutely devoured anything they released. In those primitive days of VCRs, we hoarded videotapes and shared them among ourselves — and stayed up as late as we needed to see episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (Did you hear that last word the way I did just now? sur-KUSS! And then did you hear the *STOMP*? I did!)
So yes, I certainly made the movie’s acquaintance long before. However, I hadn’t seen it for years. The last time I caught it, I was probably in my 30s (which puts me at about 5-10 years past deconversion, which is before I really began unpacking the experience; I’m in my early 50s now).
And it was just remarkable to see how much more I got out of the movie this time around.
Seriously, I really couldn’t see why any toxic Christians had any trouble with Life of Brian. It goes way out of its way to be nice to them. It always paints their mythology as actually true for realsies and Jesus as a real person who worked real miracles.
In fact, let me show you a list I made of all the times Life of Brian shows deference to Christianity, nods along with its mythology, and constantly paints Jesus as anything but the thieving, petulant conjob asshole that the Gospels show us. Life of Brian is 100% sympathetic to Jesus and Christianity.
In the Beginning: The Early Years of Life of Brian.
The movie begins with Brian Cohen’s birth. The Three Wise Men wind their way through narrow alleys in some 1st-century Middle Eastern hellhole. But they accidentally end up at Brian’s house.
The king done up in dark makeup to look Moorish is probably Saint Balthazar, because tradition has described him that way for centuries.The one in red is probably Caspar, while the one with a gray beard and poofy hat is probably Melchior. So far, this movie’s spot-on with the mythology.
(If you’re wondering, Melchior always gives Jesus his present (gold) first in the mythology, then Caspar (frankincense), then Balthazar (myrrh). By the Renaissance, Three Kings folklore had developed quite a lot.)
After some humorous back-and-forth, the kings grab back their prezzies and leave. Very quickly, they locate the “real” birthplace of Jesus — it’s an outdoor manger, with a properly-halo’d Mary and Joseph.
Jesus’ birth is treated as 100% historical — and 100% divine in nature. This picture above could have come out of any Catholic devotional.
GRADE: 100% Baby-Jesus-approved.
Saturday Afternoon Sermons.
After a rousing James Bond-style intro song about “A Man Called Brian,” the camera pans across a bleak desert scene labeled “About Tea Time.” Tons of robed Jews head to a hill to listen to Jesus give his famous Sermon on the Mount.
And again, the Jews are shown enrapt in this speech. Brian and his mum stand way in the back of the crowd. Mum can’t hear it well and complains loudly, but Brian keeps trying to quiet her down. He’s very interested in what this strange prophet has to say. She, meanwhile, wishes to attend a stoning in town instead of straining to hear Jesus.
Eventually, they leave for the stoning. Because women aren’t allowed to attend these events, Brian’s mum puts on a fake beard. In fact, the crowd at the stoning consists almost entirely of women in fake beards. And the scene itself functions as a condemnation of the custom of stoning, which of course Jesus clearly didn’t like.
Incidentally, the person stoned is named “Matthias, son of Deuteronomy of Gath.” That’s not an arbitrarily-chosen name at all. Check this out. I so love this movie.
GRADE: A+. Completely deferential to Jesus and absolutely true to its source material.
Jesus, the Healer of Lepers.
On the way home from the stoning, an “ex-leper” (a surprisingly buff, tanned Michael Palin in a loincloth) follows them to beg for money. Eventually, Brian notices that Palin’s character has been calling himself an “ex-leper” and asks what happened. The ex-leper tells him that Jesus cured him, and he is completely 100% positive of this fact.
When they get home at last, a Roman soldier awaits the mother’s services. (Sex work, it looks like.) Brian reacts poorly, because Jerusalem is, of course, being heavily oppressed by Romans right then. His offended mother tells him that his father is actually a Roman soldier who went by the name Naughtius Maximus. Brian freaks out, declares that he is totally and completely Jewish, and storms to his room.
I loved this bit because it hints at the early rumors that sprang up around Jesus’ own potential parentage. The rumor apparently went that his mother had gotten busy with a Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, and that’s who really fathered Jesus — not Joseph, and certainly not any gods. But again, Brian isn’t Jesus. The movie does not at any point ask us to accept him as divine.
GRADE: A+. Again, these scenes are completely deferential to Jesus. Jesus’ status as a miracle-worker gets pushed hard here. The ex-leper very obviously believes completely that Jesus healed him. As for the parentage reveal for Brian, it alludes to the rumors about Jesus, but doesn’t say anything about Jesus himself.
The Life of Brian, the Political Firebrand.
We’ll skip some of the political machinations going on. They’re interesting and period-authentic, but don’t have a lot to do with Jesus or Christianity’s origin story. Brian works as a street-food vendor at the arena, offering up an array of exotic-sounding finger foods that might or might not actually exist in reality but have been part of folklore about Roman cuisine for a long time.
While at work, Brian connects with a radicalized liberation group. His first mission for them involves painting the slogan “Romans, go home!” on a wall. A centurion catches him, gives him an excruciating lecture regarding the correct grammar for the phrase, and orders him to write it 100 times by dawn or else. From what I can tell, the Latin is completely correct.
The finished wall is a wonder to behold. (At 0:31:00, we see the soldiers scrubbing that same graffiti off the walls.)
Also, all those prophets trying to gather an audience for their ravings? Oh yeah. Histories of the area at the time mentioned a lot of apocalyptic preachers running around Jerusalem. Though no contemporary writers mention the Gospels’ particular version of Jesus even once, Jews of the time were well-used to the Gospels’ presentation of rabble-rousing.
When Brian flees the Romans who’ve captured him, he ends up hiding on a balcony. When he falls onto the street below, he pretends to be one of those apocalyptic preachers. And the sermon he chooses to give the onlookers sounds almost exactly like the Sermon on the Mount, and he tells stories that sound like Jesus’ parables.
People are clearly intrigued by what Brian has to say, though they can’t really follow much of it. They follow him, demanding his wisdom. Eventually, they get into a huge argument over Brian’s lost sandal and a gourd he was holding earlier.
GRADE: A+. Absolutely nothing here speaks poorly of Jesus or Christianity. It does, perhaps, speak poorly of gullible people who need to be told what to do, and who need something cosmic to believe. The movie makes crystal-clear that these people are not following the real Messiah. They’ve latched onto a guy who isn’t even close to that standard.
Brian Tries to Avoid His Worshipers.
Eventually, Brian’s worshipers find him — in a desert hole with a Jewish ascetic.
They demand miracles of their Messiah. He scare-quotes “provides” them with juniper bushes, whose berries they take for food.
(The ascetic freaks out cuz those berries represent his only food source. So, he gets up out of the hole and springs after the worshipers. Yes, he’s stark nekkid, and yes, his meat-and-two-veg were visible from the back view.)
Anything Brian says or does, the crowd takes as miracles. Brian repeatedly tries to tell them he’s not the Messiah. But to this, one follower immediately replies, “I say you are, Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.”
Gourd Lady declares that Brian’s denial of divinity rises to the level of evidence for his divinity. Angry now, Brian says fine, FINE, he’s totally the Messiah. And he uses his power to tell his new followers to go away. But they only actually do go away when they decide to persecute the poor ascetic.
The next morning, Brian awakens (beside Judith Iscariot), gets up all happy and nekkid, opens his windows to get some fresh air flowin’ over Little Brian… and discovers throngs of worshipers in the street below his window, all waiting for him to appear. They shout in joy at the sight of their Messiah.
Brian’s mum is furious at all this commotion. She orders the worshipers to “stop following my son.”
A minute later, she discovers the naked Judith in the room. Now beyond fury, she goes back to the crowd to tell them one of the most iconic lines in cinema history:
Now you listen here! He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy! Now go away!
I laughed so hard. How, how, how did this offend TRUE CHRISTIANS™?
(PS: Mum calls Judith “that Welsh tart.” I wonder if that’s a sly reference to some legends about Judas Iscariot? ETA: an astute reader has mentioned that it’s probably a reference to the actress herself. She’s Welsh.)
GRADE: A+. Brian does not ever willingly assume the mantle of Messiah. In fact, what he wants of his worshipers is the dead opposite of what Jesus demanded of his own.
Brian Tells the Crowd to Think for Themselves.
Eventually, Brian’s worshipers smooth-talk Mum into forcing Brian to reappear to talk to them. He tries to talk them into thinking for themselves, that they don’t need to follow savior-figures. This effort fails miserably. They’ve even invaded his home! Brian slips away from the chaos and mopes on his hovel’s staircase.
He and Judith have a moment together there, but then he’s captured by the Romans again. The radical political group he joined doesn’t seem interested in rescuing him. Judith tries to get them moving to help Brian, but her efforts fail.
Life of Brian presents us with that whole Barabbas-style release scene. The lisping Pontius Pilate offers to release a prisoner for the crowd, but they keep suggesting names that he can’t properly pronounce. His friend Biggus Dickus has a similar impediment, and eventually all the Jews are on their backs and limp from laughter.
Brian’s struggles have come to their crescendo. He must now haul his cross to his dying place.
It looks like they’ve got Jesus being condemned and hauling a cross in the scene too, but they don’t really identify him.
We see him again here a few minutes later:
Fun fact: the guy who played Jesus, Kenneth Colley, played Admiral Piett in the first Star Wars movie. Clearly a lack of faith wasn’t a problem for him!
And Jesus appears here, too, to our right of Brian holding a cross:
The guy never talks, but he looks pretty Jesus-y.
An older guy stops to help the Jesus-y guy carry his cross — a clear allusion to the legend of Simon of Cyrene. But the Jesus figure skips away free, leaving his helper to die in his stead.
Again, nobody ever names this figure. He never speaks. Our previous view of Jesus was from a great distance.
The crowd, egged on by Judith, finally demands Brian’s release. The centurions head out first to the earlier setting at the arena to the crucifixion hill to try to save Brian from death. Alas, all their rescue attempts fail, as do the ineffective ones of various liberation groups.
Brian ends up alone on his cross, abandoned by his lover, his mother, and all his worshipers. But a crucified man behind him starts singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” The other crucified men begin to sing too. And that cheers things up.
GRADE: B. Kinda makes light of crucifixion as an execution method. I do sorta see why Christians might not have liked seeing the Jesus figure dip out dishonestly like that. But the movie refuses to identify him as Jesus at all, and his presentation is ambiguous enough that it could go either way.
Life of Brian: Final Score.
OVERALL BABY JESUS APPROVAL GRADE: A-.
It gets so much correct about the history, and it’s spot-on about how sects formed in the 1st century.
Overall, it’s really hard to see what could have really offended Christians so much when this movie was released in 1979. Any questionable stuff that happens, happens to Brian. When a prophet turns out to be a fake, it’s Brian. Whenever miracles get revealed, it’s Jesus really doing them. Heck, Brian couldn’t even hold his crowds’ attention using sorta-Jesus-y parables and exhortations, because obviously he lacked Jesus Power!
Indeed, Monty Python members have noted that they thought very highly of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. They couldn’t find anything really “mockable” about the Sermon on the Mount, or Jesus’ general biography. So instead, they decided to tell the story of someone mistaken for the Jewish Messiah. This other person, they felt, could be mocked very easily and criticized freely — because let’s face it, imposters and vainglorious false prophets have been a part of Christianity, entwined about it like Brian was with Jesus himself, since its very beginnings.
With all that said, though, the movie sets Christianity on a shelf a bit too close to made-up religions, sets Jesus on a shelf way too close to Brian the imposter, and finally makes crucifixion seem way too easy. This movie’s “Jesus” didn’t even look beaten up to the point of unrecognizability!
It just doesn’t bow obsequiously enough. I think that’s what got Christians so cranky.
A few people in comments yesterday noted that a lot of people concluded, back in 1979, that Christians’ hand-wringing and furor over Life of Brian was ridiculously overwrought and over-the-top. They realized that the Christians condemning the movie had either not watched it or hadn’t gotten its message because they were so ego-stung over anything even sorta adjacent to their religion being satirized. Their freakout was simply not justified by the material presented in this movie.
And so, in its odd little way, maybe Life of Brian helped end religious dominance over the United Kingdom — and maybe other places too. For that — and its simply hilarious self, of course — it deserves its place in cinematic history.
NEXT UP: LSP! Then, I want to touch on this Matt Gaetz story. After that, we’ll be zeroing in on churchless Christians. See you tomorrow! Happy Chocolate Bunny Day! <3
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