The clash between the church and Monty Python over The Life of Brian is the stuff of Internet legend. Simply entering ‘Life of Brian’ into YouTube points you to the full 1979 debate where Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, together with Malcolm Muggeridge, the broadcaster and satirist, clashed with John Cleese and Michael Palin over the iconoclastic film on a chat show.
Muggeridge dismissed it as ‘a tenth-rate film that wouldn’t disturb anyone’s faith’, but his and the bishop’s patronising put down of the Pythons is now widely seen, even by Christians, as an own-goal which discredited religion for many people.
The debate was revived on BBC Radio 4 a few days ago when Michael Palin guest-edited the Today programme and took a fresh look at the TV footage with John Cleese. In the programme, Richard Burridge, a New Testament theologian who is organising a conference called Jesus and Brian: What have the Pythons done for us? commented on the 1979 debate and the film.
Both Cleese and Palin, who in 1979 had prepared for a substantial debate of the issues, were disappointed at the time by the tone taken by their opponents, and that disappointment hasn’t faded after over 30 years.
Said Cleese: ‘I think the sad thing was there was absolutely no attempt at a proper discussion, no attempt to find any common ground, and it remains the case now, there’s very little interesting discussion or talk about religion.’
Michael Palin added: ‘The final remark of Mervyn Stockwood, fingering his cross and saying, “I hope you make your 30 pieces of silver,” made me feel, we’ve won this, I’m afraid. And the bishop said to me, as soon as we got off, “I thought that went rather well.”’
Asked who won the argument, Rev Professor Richard Burridge of King’s College said, ‘There was no doubt. The performance by the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge was embarrassing. Watching it again I was so disappointed that there wasn’t the real discussion that they wanted to have about the film.
Richard Burridge believes that The Life of Brian was a more nuanced take on the life of Christ than was realised at the time. The film was not intended as a satire on Christ’s life. The original idea of the Pythons was a film with the jokey title of Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, but when they read the teaching of Jesus they agreed he was ‘definitely a good guy’ and decided instead to make fun of Brian, who is clearly shown not to be Jesus at the start of the film.
Says Burridge: ‘The film is a way of taking the mickey out of organised religion, at the way people follow people blindly. Judea at the time of Jesus was full of pretend Messiahs. “I should know, Lord, I’ve followed many of them,” is one of Cleese’s lines. And there was so much internecine warfare going on between the various Jewish liberation groups against the Romans, which is seen in the film’s different popular fronts. A great deal of that was treated extremely accurately in The Life of Brian.’
Jesus and Brian: What have the Pythons done for us? takes place on 20-22 June 2014 at King’s College London
The TV clips from 1979 are included in the movie above under fair use for non-commercial, educational purposes