Life of Brian, Richard Burridge and the Media

Richard Burridge has recently found himself being discussed in the media for his positive comments on Life of Brian, partly to provide a point of contrast with the infamous negative remarks of Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge back in 1979. Our story begins with Richard’s comments on Radio 4’s Today programme and the Telegraph who picked up on this and (faithfully) published the following:

…one of Britain’s most respected theologians insists that Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is in fact a “remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus”. The Rev Prof Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, said that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message.
Prof Burridge said that the fact that the Pythons had set out to write a satire about Jesus but had to resort to using a fictional failed messiah was a tribute to the uniqueness of Christ which Christians had failed to capitalise on.
He said: “What is interesting about what Cleese says is that when they sat down to read the gospels they were struck by Jesus, his teaching, and realised that you couldn’t actually make a joke of these things which is why the accusation from Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge that they were trying to use Jesus was so patently false.
“I think it is an extraordinary tribute to the life and work and teaching of Jesus – that they couldn’t actually blaspheme or make a joke out of it.
“What they did was take ordinary British people and transpose them into an historical setting and did a great satire on closed minds and people who follow blindly.
“Then you have them splitting into factions … it is a wonderful satire on the way that Jesus’s own teaching has been used to persecute others.
“They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.”

So far, so reasonable, at least in terms of presenting Richard’s comments. In Life of Brian style, interpreters (of the Telegraph piece) started to take these comments in different, even surreal, directions. The Sun managed to put a picture of Richard and Desmond Tutu on Jeremy ClarksonPage Three, i.e. the page which includes a young woman with her tits out. The Irish Independent attributed some dramatic (and not-particularly-faithful) claims to Richard in a headline effectively containing nothing more than the Telegraph piece: “’Life of Brian’ was true, theologian swears on Bible”. Even Jeremy Clarkson got involved by arguing the following in the Sun:

Monty Python’s epic film, The Life of Brian, mercilessly ridiculed the very core of Christianity and, as a result, it was banned by many local authorities and roundly condemned by the Church of England. But now a leading church figure, the Rev Prof Richard Burridge has stepped forward to say that the condemnation was wrong because the film, in fact, is a remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus. No it isn’t. Jesus only appears once, as a muttering Yorkshireman whose incoherent speech about blessing the cheesemakers starts a fight. Not really much of a tribute, is it?” (“Cheese’s Christ, what a miracle!”)

One thing interesting to me is the ongoing focus on whether the film is positive towards Jesus and should be celebrated as such. If the Facebook responses are anything to go by, then people seem to think it is a positive presentation. I’m not so sure it’s that simple…

The film does contrast Jesus and Brian but in the sense that they effectively represent the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history respectively. And the portrayal of the Brian/Jesus of history involves the following:

  • Born out of wedlock with a Roman soldier as a father who raped Mandy (/Mary) ‘at first’ with high Mariology attributed to her by deluded and stupid followers
  • Emphatically not the Messiah with (and through using Wrede) Messiahship attributed to him by deluded and stupid followers, including one who knows because he’s followed a few
  • A Jew loyal to Jews and Judaism with no intention of starting any new movement in his name (quite the opposite)
  • An anti-Roman insurrectionist
  • Enjoying non-marital sex with Judith (read: Mary Magdalene)
  • Death being the end with no resurrection
  • Key message is that we are all individuals who shouldn’t let anyone tell us what to do and should think for ourselves

I have discussed these issues in more detail, and the use of scholarly views of Jesus, here.

Some other points may be added. Biblical and parabolic language (including that attributed to Jesus) is clearly mocked in the proclamations by Brian and other prophets, not least as being silly and potentially confusing.

Also, Hans Wiersma has recently shown (as Philip Davies had earlier stressed) that an undermining of the brutal nature of crucifixion – and implicitly Jesus’ death and its theological significance – runs throughout Life of Brian and may be as jarring as any theme for Christians (or indeed anyone familiar with what happens to those crucified).

Obviously, whether any of these issues are offensive or blasphemous is a matter of perspective. Perhaps what could be the next stage in this debate is to see whether the positive voices think that a positive portrayal of Jesus would include the following: Jesus portrayed as a non-Messiah (with Messiahship simply invented by deluded and very stupid followers), Jesus’ mother being raped ‘at first’ (and likewise having exalted Mariology attributed to her by deluded and stupid followers), crucifixion being little more than a doddle that gets you out in the air, Jesus joining with violent insurgents, Jesus’ parabolic language being sometimes silly, death being the end, and no resurrection… And how about the very first followers being portrayed as idiots?

I can imagine certain liberal Christians seeing something like this as an acceptable portrayal of Jesus but there are obviously Christians who really wouldn’t. Has Life of Brian now been domesticated…?

On Jesus/Brian see e.g.:

J. Crossley, ‘Life of Brian or Life of Jesus? Uses of Critical Biblical Scholarship and Non-orthodox Views of Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, Relegere (2011), pp. 95-116

P. Davies, ‘Life of Brian Research’ in Davies, Whose Bible Is It Anyway? (London & New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004), pp. 142-155

R. Walsh, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)’ in A. Reinhartz (ed.), Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 187-92

H. Wiersma, ‘Redeeming Life of Brian: How Monty Python (Ironically) Proclaims Christ Sub Contrario’, Word and World 32 (2012), pp. 166-77

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8 responses to “Life of Brian, Richard Burridge and the Media

  1. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Vintage Crossley- a great read.

  2. David Tollerton

    I agree that it is interesting how much the “is Life of Brian actually blasphemous?” debate just seems to run and run.

    Last time I covered Life of Brian with my students I found myself suspecting that respondents instinctively want to overly harmonize the film’s meaning. The Monty Python members clearly did plenty of historical research, but their general approach to writing film scripts was fractious and quite haphazard (as they’ve admitted in interviews, their other films ultimately ended up in narrative incoherence).

    Like pre-critical readers of the Bible, are we at risk of suppressing the unevenness of the text?

    • Yes, I think that has to be taken into consideration. I think there is a fair degree of consistency on issues of the presentation of Brian in relation to historical Jesus and Gospel questions (birth, beliefs, messiahship, resurrection etc) but that doesn’t mean it always is consistent on other issues, of course. The actual Jesus in the film is regularly thought to be presented as very positive which *might* be right but I’m not 100% convinced. He is presented as preaching Sermon on the Mount which is effectively the Hollywood Jesus (and Christ of faith) but the crowd aren’t bad as such as his message is not presented in obviously positive or negative terms. The traditional nativity scene likewise. One judgment by the leper is that Jesus made his life worse by taking away his income. I don’t quite know what to make of that. Could be that we shouldn’t harmonise it, as you say. Also, I think there is a case to be made (as I have) for the presence of the Hollywood Jesus to be a means to deflect potential criticisms (as MP have) so they can get on with being a bit naughty with Brian/Jesus.

      • David Tollerton

        Yes, I’m not quite sure about the appearances of the ‘actual’ Jesus in the film. In interviews/diaries MP make a great deal of flagging up their respect for the actual Jesus. But I agree that there’s obviously an element of making fun of the Hollywood Jesus. In practice (and possibly by intention) the actual Jesus’ appearances are also a handy insurance policy against being prosecuted for blasphemy in the wake of the Gay News case. Overall, I think that MP’s intentions can be a bit tricky to get into exact focus…

        Btw – as a curious indicator of changing sensibilities / the altered place of MP in culture my students repeatedly claim to not find Life of Brian that funny but did find the 1961 trailer to King of Kings hilarious (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5t9i4qowU7o).

      • Interesting…I wonder if this is evidence of a generational shift in the reception of LofB. I’ve not taught on it for about three years now so I can’t really compare. Perhaps the issue is that KoKings trailer is in a style parodied so heavily since LoB that only the original non-cynical version can elicit a laugh…

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  4. One does not have to side with Stockwood and Muggeridge to recognize the absurdity of Richard Muggeridge describing “The Life of Brian” as “a remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus.”

    Which is worse – to mindlessly condemn Monty Python for what they did with the Gospels or to mindlessly commend them for it?

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