January 24, 2021: “He’s Not the Messiah”/ Monty Python’s Life of Brian

CALL TO WORSHIP

Excerpts from the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

STORY

DRE Katie reads Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

READINGS

“Brian Holds a Speech” from Life of Brian on YouTube

“He’s Not the Messiah” from Life of Brian on YouTube

SERMON

(The topic for this “auction sermon” was chosen by the highest bidder in last year’s church auction.)

There’s a stereotype out there that comedy writing is much easier than drama writing but in fact the opposite is true. People assume that since comedy is funny, writing it is good fun and easy to do. And maybe they assume the same thing about writing about comedy — it’s easy and fun.

Well, let me just say that writing this sermon was not. 

Okay, sure it was enjoyable in some ways. But it was not easy. Because who can say why something is funny? And isn’t “funny” really subjective? My funny is different from yours. What if I don’t like the thing you love? What if I don’t find it funny? Yikes! That situation is not funny.

And this kind of thing — this irony of expectations turned upside down, this absurdity that creates social discomfort, this individual choice around what to value — this stuff is exactly what Monty Python is all about. How ironic.

The film in context

From the moment it was released in 1979, Life of Brian has caused uproar, with leaders from Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism calling it blasphemous and prompting cities and countries to ban it.  Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin even agreed to appear in a televised debate over the film’s merits with a Christian journalist and a bishop from the Church of England. While the Pythons presented respectful, reasoned arguments that swayed the audience, the Christian spokespeople indulged in grand-standing, name-calling and insults, which ironically made them appear even more like the religious leaders who are lampooned in the film. Of course the controversy served to pique the interest of viewers and so ironically banning the film actually boosted ticket sales. In Sweden movie posters read “So funny it was banned in Norway.”

At one point, John Cleese praised the protesters for making him rich: “I feel we should send them a crate of champagne or something.” 

The film today

But now 42 years later, what can the film mean to us? As a work of imagination, does it stand the test of time? Does its critique of religion hold? How does it embody or contradict our UU principles?

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve decided to focus on how the film intersects with just one principle, the fourth one, our UU imperative to execute a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I’m going to break that down into three sections, under three questions:

  1. How does the film portray the human religious drive, our common “search for truth and meaning”?
  2. How is Brian’s search free and/or not free?
  3. How is Brian’s search responsible or not responsible?

Question One: How does the film portray the human religious drive, our common “search for truth and meaning”?

This is a major theme of the film. In that first clip we see Brian preach, in a panicked ramble, to a small crowd who are at first doubtful, almost combative. But then, after the Roman troops pass, Brian trails off and the crowd is mystified, intrigued by him. Suddenly he is Master and his gourd is a sacred artefact. The crowd worships Brian, and In that moment a religion is born. 

Over and over, the Pythons repeat that the film does not make fun of Jesus. Eric Idle once explained it this way: “we couldn’t make fun of the Christ since what he says is very fine (and Buddhist).”

Brian of course is not Jesus and the film takes pains to differentiate the two — but the film does accurately portray and lampoon how a first century religion in Judea might have been formed.

In our first clip this morning, Brian is one of many messianic, apocalyptic prophets preaching in the town square, he is also a political revolutionary, working for the overthrow of the Romans. When he speaks a few mystical truisms, the crowd engages him, but then when he denies them and tries to leave, that’s when things get interesting. His denial becomes proof of his power. More irony. Then the crowd starts creating theology, making up their own interpretation of Brian’s words and actions and that’s where the satire strikes so acutely. Because the interpretation is so arbitrary, so particular to a time and place and person but then it gets cemented into religious truth with a capitol T, supposedly true in all times and places.

Michael Palin later explained it this way: “So our target, what made the film valid, was not, ‘Jesus didn’t exist’ or ‘Jesus was a fraud’ or that ‘Jesus was wrong,’ but that we rely on interpretation and that interpretation is a political thing, and it’s been used by people throughout the ages to condone all sorts of excesses. . . . That’s exactly something we could say.

Terry Jones, the film’s director and an amateur historian, makes a similar point when he calls the film a heresy, not a blasphemy: 

“Well, it’s not blasphemous because it accepts the Christian story; in fact, the film doesn’t make sense unless you take the Christian story, but it’s heretical in terms of [being] very critical of the Church, and I think the joke of it is, really: to say, here is Christ saying all these wonderful things about people living together in peace and love, and then for the next two thousand years people are putting each other to death in His name because they can’t agree about how He said it, or in what order He said it.”

I think this is a profound point that the film makes accurately and masterfully — the human religious impulse is acute, especially in times of turmoil. Revelation can come in strange places, from strange people — and it is easily mis-heard and misinterpreted. Human have a great need for meaning-making but their tools and approaches are limited and flawed.

Question 2. How is Brian’s search for truth and meaning free and/or not free?

To me this is the central thrust and statement of movie —  The individual is and must be free to make and assert the meaning of his or her own life. Religion can’t do that for you. Free yourself from conformity.

And of course that’s the meaning of our second film clip today, when the crowd shows up at Brian’s door, demanding that he bless them. His mother says: “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”

Brian then tells them: “You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody.”

Brian says, “You’re all Individuals.”

The crowd repeats, “We’re all individuals.”

Brian says, “You’re all different.”

The crowd repeats, “We’re all different.”

One person says, “I’m not.”

The comedy here is hilarious, because of the obvious irony. How are they individuals if they are all speaking in unison? How are they all different if they are all just parroting Brian? And what of that one guy, who says he’s not different? Isn’t he proving that he IS different by saying that he’s not?

The logic just goes in circles and you get irony on top of irony.

This scene reminds you of the one earlier in the film where a crowd is gathered to stone a man accused of saying God’s name, Jehovah, in vain. The pompous religious leader there, stating the charges, then says the name and the crowd stones him instead. Ironies compound, and the scene eventually degrades into a stoning melee. 

What you take away from these scenes is that while humans as individuals long for meaning and purpose, the moment they assemble into groups or traditions, their logic gets convoluted, ridiculous, ironic, and the whole thing becomes absurd. Life is absurd. Religion is absurd. The only response that makes sense is to laugh. 

Monty Python uses the absurd to free you from the constraints of conformity, to open your mind to possibilities beyond the conventional, to remind you of your freedom, as an individual, to make sense as you please of your time on earth. Each of us is free in every moment to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Finally, question 3. How is Brian’s search for truth and meaning responsible or not responsible?

For me this is where the movie — and a lot of contemporary religious quests — falls short, or leaves me hanging. Of course one movie can’t do everything, and this one does many things well. But we have to admit that like everything, Life of Brian is a product its place and time, its social situation, and therefore it contains the prejudices and blindspots of its era.

In the very first scene, John Cleese wears dark makeup to portray one of the Three Wise Men as black. While arguably in a separate vein from the racist American tradition of minstrelsy, this portrayal could not happen today for good reason. I feel similarly about the many scenes in which the all-male Pythons play female characters, usually with a shrill mockery that denies them their full humanity. In Life of Brian, there is also a proto-transgender character, Stan who wishes to be known as Loretta, who is not played by a transgender person.

To what degree does this lack of real representation matter? One could say that I’m just projecting 21st century identity politics on a 1979 movie, innocently made by 6 white, upper-middle-class British men. One could also say that the Pythons’ shared limited human life experience produced a film with a limited human perspective. Perhaps.

But there’s also another level of responsibility I want to address. The authors of our UU 4th principle put the word there for a reason, to create a balance — we are called to engage in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  We have to balance our freedom as individuals with our responsibility to our communities and to other beings, human and otherwise. We are not just individuals, separate from one another, totally free to do as we  like. We are part of the interdependent web of all creation. What one does affects all the others, in a global community.

So here is my deeper critique of Life of Brian. No doubt the film’s satire of religious conformity served to free many viewers from repressive structures, to push them choose their own faith and values, but that’s where it stopped. Freedom of the individual. 

Many UUs, especially in this new century, hope and build for something beyond that. We have seen individualism run amok, in consumerism, materialism, warfare, racism, white supremacy culture, the list goes on and on. Individualism is not the answer for us, in my opinion.

Then what is?

Is there a way for us to engage in community, to honor our responsibility to one another, to create across lines of race, gender, and class a new religious understanding that doesn’t promote conformity, that doesn’t twist logic unto absurdity, that doesn’t suppress the individual?

That possibility doesn’t exist in the world of Monty Python. Why? Maybe because it’s not funny. Or maybe because it just wasn’t something they could or did imagine. Comedy as a whole is much more interested in tearing down what is than in imagining and building up what is not yet. 

For that we turn to imagination, and sometimes to poetry. 

This week inaugural poet Amanda Gorman described such a future. She writes:

“We are striving to forge a union with purpose

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and

conditions of man.”

When she spoke those words on Wednesday, she was part of living out that vision, of embodying a government and a world that was unimaginable back in 1979 — a young black female poet, standing next to a female Vice President, standing next to women of color serving on the Supreme Court, alongside cabinet members who are gay and transgender? Unimaginable back in 1979.

Representation matters. 

The people who are there, in the room where it happens, those who take part in the imagining and the creating, determine what comes next, what values get promoted, whose voices get heard. What new world gets imagined.

I for one am thrilled that we’ve outgrown 1979, that our country can now involve and include all kinds of leaders. 

Because of this I believe — or rather I have a religious faith in the idea that by including everyone in the process of governance, in the process of imagination, we will eventually become able to create that Beloved Community, that religious vision of humankind finally living in peace and justice, that Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi and King all foresaw.

So may it be. Amen.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Ironic Faith in Monty Python’s Life of Brian by Stephen Benko

How Life of Brian Drew Me to Christianity by Rachel Mann

BBC Culture Life of Brian: The most blasphemous film ever? by Nicholas Barber

Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the Jesus Film by William L. Telford

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